Is Google Doing Evil in China?

Intelligence Squared US recently arranged a public debate discussing whether Google violates its “Don’t Be Evil” motto.  Speakers on both sides took on an argumentative style.  One important part of the debate was centered on Google’s strategy in China. CDT selected some excerpts from the media transcripts of the event.

First,  here is Harry Lewis speaking for the motion that Google does violate its motto.

[…] The world looks very different through the window that Google provides, in China, than through the window on the world that you have available to yourselves here. In fact, it’s not
the picture window on the world, it’s a distorted lens that has been built, custom-built by Google to Chinese specifications.

Now how did that happen. Google is the company, whose mission is to organize the world’s information, and to make it universally accessible and useful. How did it come to be in the business of creating the distorting lens, rather than the picture window on the world. Well, in 2004, Google was entering the international market, it wanted to be the number-one search engine in the world, it started to do business in China. And the Chinese said, we don’t want you to show our citizens the world as it really is, with all of its complexities, and its contradictions, and its inconsistent sources of information. We want the Chinese citizens to know the world the way we want them to know the world. And, Google said, okay, we’ll give them that world instead of the world as it really is.

Their choice was, to accept the Chinese ultimatum, or to go home. They could’ve gone home, they didn’t, they stayed, and built the engine as the Chinese wanted it. Now it’s a wonderful product. I agree with everything that’s been said about what a wonderful product it is and what a wonderful company it is. But here it’s been turned from a wonderful product, that we know, into an instrument of thought control. Now some may weakly claim that it’s doing more good than harm… that the Chinese people are better off getting partial information via the Google search window than getting no information at all. That’s nonsense, there are other search engines, through which you can get the censored truth, if that’s what you want people to provide. Google didn’t choose the lesser of two evils when faced with the Chinese ultimatum; it chose the more profitable of the two evils.

In contrast, here is Esther Dyson speaking against the motion.

[…] The power of transparency, the power of knowledge, is fundamentally good, even though it can on occasion be used for bad. And so Google’s trust is to ensure that that power is used for good as much as possible. I have seen what they’re doing in China. And ladies and gentlemen, the reason they’re not violating their “Don’t be evil” policy is because they’re in there, and they’re engaged. Yes, they could abdicate, they could say we’re not gonna bother to go into China. But every time some Chinese person uses Google, and doesn’t get what he wants, he may notice, he may not even notice the absence, but he does know that he can go find out all the negative information on George Bush he wants.

And at some point, he or she says, well, gee. If I can get—or whatever the Chinese version is—if I can get this bad information about George Bush why can’t I find out more about what’s going on in my own country. Google by its very presence and its operation, even if it’s incomplete, creates increasing expectations for transparency, it starts people answering questions. It gets them to expect to be able to find out stuff. And it knows that by doing that, people are going to start asking more questions. So I think Google was doing the right thing, by going into China.

Also, Jim Harper made an additional observation.

So there’s more evidence to how freedom breaks out in a country that I think people should consider. In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel was a playwright, and he wrote very obscure plays that the authorities didn’t understand well. But the fact that people went to the plays, they talked about them, they were talking about revolution, they were talking about freedom. Similar things are happening now with Google’s help in China. They’re using cultural references that the authorities don’t understand, and that Google and nobody else can control. They’re using language, they’re talking to each other, they’re communicating with each other, and they’re finding each other through Google.

In addition to the full transcript, the video of the discussion can be found here.

Also, here is Forbes’ recent interview with Google China CEO Kai-fu Lee.

For more on China’s search engine market and also the recent crisis of Baidu, please see the CDT tag, ” “search engines.”