Thursday, January 26, 2006

Justifiable Kowtowing ?

[It's been a while since I have posted anything new. What usually happens is that I start a story but never actually have the chance to finish it, what with the other few hundred things going on in my life. However, I didn't think I could put this particular story in the Drafts folder given my level of disappointment and curiosity.]

"Don't be evil" - a motto that Google claims forms the basis of their corporate policies and business practices. What compounds my disappointment is that I actually believed it until I read that Google has agreed to create new versions of its search and news-aggregation websites that will censor all results that the Chinese government deems to be objectionable. Here's what the head policy counsel at Google had to say, "Google.cn will comply with local Chinese laws and regulations. In deciding how best to approach the Chinese --or any-- market, we must balance our commitments to satisfy the interest of users, expand access to information, and respond to local conditions."

Now, when I had read similar news stories about Microsoft engaging in similar reprehensible behavior, I was actually not that surprised. There were two reasons for that - (a) I believed that Google is still out there leading the charge against government censorship and intrusion, and (b) Microsoft, the company (I am not referring to Gates here), does not have a track record that attests to putting the benefits to the consumer above profits. I understand that - if they don't comply, they will lose millions, if not billions, by government regulation in the form of excessive regulation and non-compliance to drive out software piracy.

Google's stand seems to be that access to some information is better than no information at all. I am not sure how they expect that any reasonable person would stomach that. Isn't the logic simple ? In a country where the government already has control over most other media, the citizens would inevitably come to rely upon a service, such as Google, that can provide not only information but also a sense of connectedness to the rest of the world. If said service also kowtows to extremely unreasonable government demands, it is just a redundant source of government propaganda.

Let's try playing devil's advocate for a minute. Larry Page recently said that he has always wanted to change the world. I think he, along with co-founder Brin, has managed to make a significant difference in the dissemination of information. May be he actually believes that access to some information is better than no information. In that case, I will grant that he thinks a compromise is necessitated and that the company is still not violating their motto. However, just because you can't see the wrong doesn't make it right.

Strong words aside, I have an inkling of hope that Google will realize that sometimes taking a stand against an oppressive regime goes farther towards changing the world than pandering to their demands. I know other people share my feelings.

Google, Don't be evil.

Update: Here's an illustration of the censorship (a side by side comparison of google.com and google.cn search results for the same query). If you want to try some queries yourself, change your browser language to Chinese so that your default google site becomes google.cn.

Update 2: Google has finally spoken. They are not happy with the decision that they have had to make and they hope to be able to do away with the filtering one day. I appreciate the fact that Google felt it was important to provide a public explanation of their decision (unlike certain other companies that we know of). It indicates that they still believe they are responsible to the public at large, and not just a subset that holds Google's shares. I still don't agree with their decision but I am now willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

2 comments:

Open Letter to Google said...

You are absolutely right. With every word you say. Most users of Google all around the globe share your opinion.
I am from Switzerland and just created an “Open Letter to Google” with just one post and nothing else. The idea behind it is to collect as many comments as even possible and to then send the letter to Google. It will most probably not make them change their plans, but at least it is worth a try. And it is a clear statement, too. Please contribute and leave a comment on:

http://googlecensorship.blogspot.com/

If you like the idea, please spread the news.

Thanks, Alexander

Samantha said...

I had no idea about this... it kinda bums me out.