Business/Finance

Why Google has to appear to play nice with China

by Matthew Record

For America, especially American companies, The People’s Republic of China is like a wild west for the modern day: a vast, untamed opportunity for companies and all Americans with an ideological missionary impulse or anyone who salivates at the largest single-state market in the world. That’s why Google represents such an interesting fulcrum in the battle of the hearts and minds of the People’s Republic: Google is both an economic success story and an ideological entity with its motto: “Don’t be evil.” Indeed, “that’s why China hits the American mind so hard. It is a country whose scale dwarfs the United States. With 1.3 billion people, it has four times America’s population. For more than a hundred years, American missionaries and businessmen dreamed of the possibilities—one billion souls to save, two billion armpits to deodorize” (Zakaria 87).

China is at once enticing as a business landscape, scary as an emerging threat to America’s superpower hegemony and vulnerable as an easy political punching bag for its closed, police-state society. “Easy” is an important word there because, I think, the treatment of China’s battle with Google over Internet censorship has been the jumping-off point for a lot of bloviating and simple answer “solutions,” but less int he way of real, nuanced exploration of what that system of censorship really amounts to.

I am of the opinion that up until the point where Google directly butted heads with the PRC in early 2010, they had played their presence in the country perfectly. Winning a short term, Pyrrhic, and most importantly, symbolic victory by rubbing China’s nose in their own censorship (something that’s hardly a secret, anyway) wasn’t worth the long-term impact that would have come with pulling out altogether – that is, encouraging China to become ever more insular.

It’s difficult to argue that Google shouldn’t take a constant and open stance against China’s censorship because so much more than just the interests of the Chinese government and Google are at stake:

More than a battle over territory or market share, it is a conflict over ideology, one that pits a free and open Internet that empowers individuals at the expense of existing power structures against an Internet micromanaged by those powers. “What we’re talking about here is a defense of the essence of the Internet,” says Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York (Moyer).

If one wants to accuse Mr. Moyer of hyperbole, understand that many people were in agreement following Google’s showdown with the Chinese government. “Google is defending the Internet itself against censorship, repression and attack. Finally, someone is standing up to China. When will more companies and governments follow?” (Neuarth).

Indeed, the reaction to Google’s openly confrontational showdown with the PRC early last year was hailed with almost universal acclaim from technologists and foreign policy experts alike. “Many U.S companies that make big bucks doing business in China have put up with the censorship and tight controls imposed by a succession of communist dictators. That makes Google all the more gutsy for spitting in China’s eye this week” (Neuarth).

Later on, experts on Google itself offered their praise, as well: “The move, if followed through, would be a highly unusual rebuke of China by one of the largest and most admired technology companies, which had for years coveted China‘s 300 million Web users… I think it‘s both the right move and a brilliant one,’ said Jonathan Zittrain, a legal scholar at Harvard‘s Berkman Center for Internet and Society” (Jacobs, Helft).

Most importantly of all, the experts pointed out, Google has the means to stand toe-to-toe with the PRC:

[A]ny large-scale circumvention effort requires a huge number of addresses to cycle through, along with an enormous amount of bandwidth to support all the tunneling. ‘If we could magically convince all Chinese people to use [these services],’ [Hal Roberts of the Berkman Center]s says, ‘then someone would have to pay for the entire outgoing bandwidth of China.’ That might strain Google’s resources, but not by much (Moyer).

Open Internet advocates now see a white knight in Google where before they saw just another greedy company looking to get as big a foothold as possible in the world’s largest and most profitable emerging market. For Google to finally reverse their decision represented a new hope for American open-information advocates: “More than any other organization, Google has both the means and the incentive to ensure that the Internet remains open. It is also one of the few organizations with a broad enough online presence to define the standard operating rules of the Internet” (Moyer quoting Rebecca MacKinnon).

Given that a) Google and the Chinese government can’t and won’t see eye-to-eye on the issue of how and when to openly promulgate information and that b) the Chinese government has a long history of taking a hard line against companies and organizations that seek to disseminate that same information, many experts see only one solution: Google should openly challenge the PRC and when that government, in all likelihood, balks, then Google should refuse to do business in China. I, however, see this as a view that lacks nuance. Let’s look a little deeper into the situation:

“Google executives declined to discuss in detail their reasons for overturning their China strategy. But despite a costly investment, the company has a much smaller share of the search market here than it does in other major markets, commanding only about one in three searches by Chinese. The leader in searches, Baidu, is a Chinese-run company that enjoys a close relationship with the government” (Jacobs, Helft).

In another section, Jacobs states: “Google said it would otherwise [should the PRC not allow open access to information] cease to run Google.cn and would consider shutting its offices in China, where it employs some 700 people, many of them highly compensated software engineers, and has an estimated $300 million in annual revenue” (Jacobs). I’m not trying to denigrate Google’s standing in China, but $300 million in annual revenue, while absolutely not nothing, is also not enough to hurt the PRC in any substantive way. Google is not even the number one search engine in the People’s Republic. I think for Google to simply pack up their ball and go home would be impetuous –it might score some short-term brownie points with human rights advocates at home, but it would make little difference where it counts: in China.

Let’s take, by way of comparison, an American issue with similar overtones: In 2003, the French, German and Russian governments all condemned the U.S. for its intention to invade Iraq. Lacking hard, shared evidence, these governments saw U.S. action on that front as hasty. At the time, only a very small majority of Americans supported an invasion and the vast majority of people abroad were opposed to the same. Given all that, the French, German and Russian opposition was treated with contempt, even open hostility.

A large part of America’s political character is pride – as such, other countries telling us what to do, even if it’s an informed and popular sentiment, only makes us more recalcitrant. Germany, France and Russia’s statement was treated suspiciously at best and if they moved the needle of American popular opinion at all, they moved it in the wrong direction.

China has a long, proud history of Sinocentrism (indeed, China has historically referred to itself as the Middle Kingdom) and is equally unlikely to respond to what it views as inappropriate intervention by foreign interlopers.

To return to the original point: if Google; an American company, seeks to change China from the outside by way of direct confrontation it is likely only to calcify the PRC’s commitment to choking off open access to information. Open confrontation with Chinese government will satisfy critics at home but ultimately do very little by way of substantive change for the Chinese citizenry.

Observe what Google actually did, and you’ll see that they’ve deftly navigated a third way where they’ve made substantive inroads to opening up the information flow without flying too much in the fact of the government:

Google, in turn, agreed to no longer provide “lawbreaking content.” In effect, Google agreed to automatically stop rerouting users of Google.cn, the Chinese version of Google, to its site in Hong Kong, which was not subject to China’s online censorship. Search requests now made from Google.cn take an extra click in order to visit the Hong Kong site (Red Herring Staff).

Note the bold part. Google technically acquiesced to China’s demand to continue censoring search results. But it only takes one click more than it did previously to reach a site on Google.cn. How much computer savvy is really needed to push one extra button? Further:

The challenge for the authorities is that there is just too much to police by moderators, and automatic filters don‘t work terribly well. Chinese routinely use well-known code phrases for terms that will be censored (June 4 might become June 2+2, or May 35). Likewise, Chinese can usually get around the great firewall of China by using widely available software, like Freegate, or by tunneling through a virtual private network (Kristof).

By Kristof’s estimates China now has “450 million Internet users, far more than any other country, and perhaps 100 million bloggers.” Google is throwing a lifeline to these people, who from the inside of the PRC can move the needle knowing full well that an attack on the Chinese government’s policies from an American outsider will do much less good for everyone than grassroots action from within.

In my opinion, Google played it exactly right: giving the impression of acquiescing to the PRC while really working to undermine them where it counts by enabling the spread of information through backchannels and workarounds that really aren’t that difficult to figure out. Sure, from a purely idealistic standpoint one would prefer that Google just stand up to the bully and let good triumph over evil, but Google makes their decisions in this world, not a utopian vacuum. As such, I think it’s easy to criticize any action on the part of Google to kowtow to Chinese pressure but I believe if you look just a little bit closer, the truth is that they really haven’t. In the end, I think Google acquitted itself nicely against its motto. It wasn’t evil.

Cited

  • Jacobs, Andrew; Helft, Miguel. “Google, Citing Attack, Threatens to Exit China.” New York Times. 1/13/2010
  • Kristoff, Nicholas D,. “Banned in Beijing!” New York Times. 1/22/2011
  • Kynge, James. “China and the west: full circle.” Financial Times. 1/15/2010
  • Moyer, Michael. “Internet Ideology War.” Scientific American. 00368733, Apr2010. Vol. 302, Issue 4.
  • Neuarth, Al. “Google is gutsy to spit in China’s eye.” USA Today. 03/26/2010
  • Red Herring Staff. “Google vs China.” Red Herring. 1080076X, 7/15/2010.
  • Zakaria, Fareed. The Post-American World. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2008.

_____

Matthew Record is a social person by nature, he likes to be out among people and therefore the insular life of a writer suits him rather poorly. Matthew is a licensed Real Estate Appraiser currently studying to finish his long delayed bachelor’s degree in political science because who needs one of those?

Matthew is the drummer and driving force behind the indie pop sextet Fortune & Spirits. He is also an editor of musicemissions.com and a staff writer for RazzberrySync, Inc and is, of course, the sole contributor to his own blog.

Matthew is from Long Island, NY and becomes enraged when people from Long Island root for the Rangers. We have one team and it’s the Islanders. Support them.

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