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Debate: Google decision to stop censoring results in China

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Was Google's decision to stop censoring results in China justified?

Background and context

On January 12th, 2010, Google Senior Vice President David Drummond announced: "We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.
We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China."[1] In March of 2010, Google began redirecting users from Google.cn (China) to Google.hk (Hong Kong) in order to provide a Chinese version of the search engine without censored results for words such as "Tiananmen Square", "Tibet", "Dalai Lama", and "Falun Gong". China has responded by blocking the "redirect", and so the effective result is that Google has left or been banned China. So, the question remains, in principle and on business terms, was Google justified to stop censoring its results in China and to effectively decide to leave? Were China's censorship policies really too egregious? More egregious than other countries' censorship laws? Were instances of Chinese hackers (and potentially the government) breaking into Google email accounts sufficient justification to leave? Would it be better to stay in order to provide the Chinese people with a great (albeit partly censored) search engine? Was it a good business decision on Google's part? How do the ethics relate to the business calculus? Overall, did Google make the right decision?

Contents

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Human rights: Was Google's decision to leave good for human rights?

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Pro

  • China's response to Google's decision shows depths of censorship "Google vs. China." The News Tribune. March 26th, 2010: "The issues behind Google’s decision to stop censoring its own search engine in China are perfectly encapsulated in the Chinese government’s response to it. Here are some of the instructions – as translated by the Washington Post – the government handed down to Chinese Web forum managers this week in reaction to Google’s move: 1. It is not permitted to hold discussions or investigations on the Google topic. 2. All Web sites please clean up text, images and sound and videos which attack the party, state, government agencies, Internet policies with the excuse of this event. 3. All Web sites please clean up text, images and sound and videos which support Google, dedicate flowers to Google, ask Google to stay, cheer for Google and others have a different tune from government policy. 4. [...] For all of China’s economic dynamism and modern trappings, it remains ruled by a dictatorship terrified of independent political thoughts and the means of communicating them."


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Con

  • Google out of China reduces access to free/fair info. An important consequence of the Google search engine is that it is possible to look up information on an extremely diverse range of topics in a short amount of time. By withdrawing from China, Google reduces the opportunity for individuals to find relevant information. Consequently, individuals have less information to make important decisions regarding economic transactions, and form independent opinions on political, social, or human rights issues.
  • Censorship is common globally; China was in-bounds with Google Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in January of 2010 that Google had made an "irrational business decision" because "the U.S. is the most extreme when it comes to free speech,” and because Google does business in many other countries with censorship laws (such as France, where Nazi denial is banned, and Australia where certain porn sites are banned).[3]


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Chinese users: How will Google leaving affect Chinese users?

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Pro

  • Stopping Google censorship improves user experience long-term. While it is true that the effect of Google stopping the censorship of its results may cause the site to be banned from China (which is not good for Chinese users in the short-term), the long-term objective is to increase access to information for Chinese users by pressuring the Chinese government to loosen its censorship laws. In so far as such freedom of information is improved by Google's decision, the decision will benefit Chinese Google users (or just Internet users in general) in the long-run.
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Con

  • Google's decision to leave China harms Chinese users Loretta Chao. "Pullout Threat Jolts Chinese Users." Wall Street Journal. January 14, 2010: "Google's announcement sent shock waves through the country's fast-growing Internet industry and prompted an outpouring of concern from Chinese users, some of whom brought flowers to the U.S. firm's Chinese offices in a show of support. [...] Li Qin, a student at China Agricultural University, placed a single red rose on the Google logo outside the company's office. "I support what Google does in China," she said. "If they leave, I will be very disappointed. I wanted to express my support for them." "It's a tragedy if Google pulls out of China," said Xu Hao, a junior studying Japanese at Tongji University in Shanghai."


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Laws: Was Google wrong to violate Chinese laws?

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Pro

  • Google has higher responsibility to global norms than Chinese laws "What Lengths Will You Go For China’s Market? What are You Willing to Give Up?" All Roads Lead to China. March 26th, 2010: "What firms should be doing is playing by global standards that exceed China’s. Building factories that exceed today’s regulations, and ignore the fact that local rules may look past those who fail to meet those rules TODAY, having global labor standards that exceed local “Conventional wisdom” and regulations, and implement global codes of conduct on managers related to bribery. [...] That, in fact, while firms need to certainly abide by China’s rules, it is the firms who exceed those rules who will ultimately have the most sustainable business models, even if developing these models require an upfront higher cost and may limit the short term opportunity that would only be accessible to those who are willing to bend over their moral lines."
  • Google has a right to disobey Chinese laws and leave. While China certainly has the right to eject Google from doing business in China because it is not willing to obey censorship laws, it is also true that Google has the right to make the decision to not obey China's censorship laws and accept the risk that the Chinese government might kick them out. This is the choice that Google has made, and there is nothing wrong with it making this ethical choice.
  • China must rationally justify or change its censorship laws. Bad, immoral, undemocratic laws should be changed. It's not enough to justify China's laws by saying "these are China's laws, Google must obey them." China needs to either try to explain why censoring searches for terms such as "Tibet" or "Falun Gong" are justified, or it needs to change these laws.


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Con

"For Chinese people, Google is not god, and even if it puts on a show of politics and values, it is still not god," said the overseas edition of the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's newspaper.[6]
  • Google violated the written promise it made to China "Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks." - an official with the State Council Information Office, a Cabinet office that oversees the internet.[7]
  • Google should not politicize its commerce in China "This is totally wrong. We're uncompromisingly opposed to the politicisation of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts." - an official with the State Council Information Office, a Cabinet office that oversees the internet, said in a statement carried by the official Xinhua News Agency.


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Reform: Will Google's decision to leave help advance reform?

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Pro

  • Censorship of Google is bad for China's global image Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D: "China wants to participate in the marketplace of goods but keep the marketplace of ideas outside their country. Only when China respects human rights and allows the free flow of ideas ... only then will they be treated as a full member of the international community."[8]
  • Google leaving China helps pressure regime Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch: "But the Chinese government should also realize that its repression only isolates its internet users from the rest of the world - and the long-term harm of isolation far outweighs the short-term benefit of forcing companies to leave."[9]


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Con


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Business: Is leaving China a good business decision?

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Pro

  • Google motto "don't be evil" forbids censoring results "Yes go! If Google's motto is don't do evil (or something like that), then it cannot support an oppressive regime. I hope that Google will stand its ground, and have the moral standing to say thanks but no thanks." - Reader comment on CNN.com (March 12, 2010).[10] In general, a company, for PR reasons, must uphold its motto. If it does not, then it will lose its fan base and significant business.
  • Google employees should not self-censor results in China "Google and China." New York Times Editorial. March 23, 2010: "We have no illusions that the Chinese Communist Party will suddenly decide to allow its citizens unfettered access to the Internet through Google’s Hong Kong service, where it was redirecting China-based searchers. Beijing is already reportedly disabling searches and blocking search results on Google’s site. [...] But that is much better than self-censorship, which put Google in the troubling business of stripping out results from searches about politically touchy subjects like China’s occupation of Tibet and the massacre on Tiananmen Square by the Chinese Army." This is bad for Google, because it requires dedicating Google employees and resources to this onerous task.


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Con

  • Google's decision damages business partnerships in China. For example, after Google's decision was made, China Unicom determined that it would stop using Google search on Android handsets. This and other decisions have alot to do with the need of these companies to remain in the good will of the Chinese government.[11]
  • Google's decision to leave China only benefits its rivals. Microsoft Bing and Baidu will all continue to offer search functions in China with censored results. No message will be sent in China or globally. Rather, Google's rivals will simply gain, as Google loses.


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Ethics vs. business: Was the decision more about ethics or business?

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Pro

  • Google's decision in China was mostly ethics, not business "Google vs. China." The News Tribune. March 26th, 2010: "Viewed every which way, Google’s decision looks genuinely principled. It stands to pay dearly for picking a public fight with China’s rulers. [...] The company has routed its search traffic from the Chinese mainland to its uncensored Hong Kong Web site, but the government could shut that address down overnight. [...] Even if it doesn’t, Google is already forfeiting partnerships with companies that were marketing smart phones loaded with its search features and Android operating system. Chinese mobile phone companies are already moving in on Google’s share of that market; Yahoo and Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, could grab much of Google’s search traffic if they don’t follow its admirable lead."


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Con

  • Google left China only for business reasons Sarah Lacy. "Google’s China Stance: More about Business than Thwarting." Tech Crunch. Jan 12, 2010: "1. Google’s business was not doing well in China. Does anyone really think Google would be doing this if it had top market share in the country? For one thing, I’d guess that would open them up to shareholder lawsuits. Google is a for-profit, publicly-held company at the end of the day. When I met with Google’s former head of China Kai-fu Lee in Beijing last October, he noted that one reason he left Google was that it was clear the company was never going to substantially increase its market share or beat Baidu. Google has clearly decided doing business in China isn’t worth it, and are turning what would be a negative into a marketing positive for its business in the rest of the world."
  • Benefits of Google staying in China outweigh costs. The main benefits are continuing to provide Chinese users with a great informational resource, continuing to expand access to information and free speech in China, maintaining a foothold in the huge Chinese Internet market, and making millions and potentially billions in revenue in the country. The costs may be having to censor a hand-full of search terms, employing Google workers to do this, and jeopardizing an element of Google's image. But, the benefits far outweigh these minimal costs.
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Hacking: Is Google's decision justified in context of email hacking?

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Pro

  • Chinese hacks into Google user accounts justifies leaving David Drummond, SVP, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer. "A new approach to China." Official Google Blog. January 12, 2010: "Like many other well-known organizations, we face cyber attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis. In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident--albeit a significant one--was something quite different. [...] First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses--including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors--have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities. [...] Second, we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists." The inference at Google has been that the Chinese government is likely to have been involved. This is sufficient justification for considering leaving China.
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Con

  • Google colluded with the US government on emails "Editorial: Google and China." Arab News. January 15, 2010: "the reason given is that it has detected sophisticated cyber attacks on its e-mail service in what it says were unsuccessful attempts to access the e-mails of leading Chinese dissidents. This in itself is odd. It has to be presumed that intelligence services around the world, not least in the US, have been busy trying to penetrate e-mail accounts, including Google’s, as part of the fight against international terror. Google must have spotted this activity as well, but has never protested."


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Pro/con sources

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See also

External links and resources

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