Google out of China: Doing no evil


Google tried for years to cooperate with censorship in China. But in the end, cofounder Sergey Brin's boyhood experience under totalitarianism demanded a different decision.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / March 25, 2010


Google cofounder Sergey Brin spent the early years of his childhood in the Soviet Union. His family felt firsthand what it was like to live under a totalitarian government. They didn’t like it, and managed to escape to the United States while he was still a young boy.

For all the talk about the business wisdom of Google’s move to pull out of China, it may have finally rested on the Brin family’s experiences under an oppressive political system. More than just a business decision, it was the right thing to do.

China’s ongoing censorship of access to the Internet has begun to embolden other countries to take similar steps, Mr. Brin said this week. The level of discomfort at Google in cooperating with Chinese censorship finally became too high, he said. Now, this step by giant Google might cause other censoring countries to think twice.

Since entering China in 2006, Google had won about one-third of the search-engine market there. The company agreed to cooperate with the Chinese government in censoring search results to block material that was unflattering to the government, such as its bloody suppression of Chinese protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

But in January, Google announced that attempts had been made to hack into the Google Gmail accounts of known Chinese dissidents. That finally was too much to ignore.

Google now has set up shop in Hong Kong, offering a Chinese language service without censorship. A new Google “score card” tells users which of its services are still available in China and which may be “obstructed.” Google’s YouTube video site and blogging service, for example, continue to be completely blocked in China.

China also continues to censor Google’s search results using its “Great Firewall” system that screens out most Web content the government finds objectionable. But now there’s a big difference: Google no longer cooperates as a willing partner. The Chinese government’s role in limiting what its citizens know is plainly exposed through the score card.

Will other information businesses follow Google’s lead? Go Daddy, the world’s largest Internet domain name seller, says it is pulling out. And a report from India says Dell Corporation is considering moving more of its Asian operations from China to India.

But whether Google’s experience will influence many companies in other industries remains to be seen. Censorship strikes at the heart of Google’s business, built on a free and ever-growing flow of online information. China’s desire to limit and shape that flow is antithetical to that.

(For a Monitor editorial on what the US Treasury can learn from Google, click here.)

Most of China’s nearly 400 million Internet users probably won’t miss Google. They’ll use Baidu or one of the other Chinese search engines to buy and sell, stay in touch, play online games, and otherwise entertain themselves. They literally won’t know what they are missing.

A smaller number of Chinese, those who look abroad for new ideas to modernize their country, do know what they’ve lost. Losing Google as a competitor in the Chinese marketplace isn’t good for China’s own Internet companies, which need to be pushed to innovate and modernize. But these Chinese may not have enough leverage to influence a government determined to control what its citizens know.

In the long run, Google may profit from its stand. It’s already boosted its image by more closely living up to its motto of “Don’t be evil.” And it still can hope to return someday to a more open China.