Google: Don’t Make that Mistake

Written by Julen Madariaga on January 19th, 2010

evil_googleLooking back to what I wrote last week I realize that, in my effort to keep a cool head and analyze the events, I forgot to say a very important thing: I Respect Google. I have never had any doubt of the non-business nature of their decision, and, in spite of our poll’s results, I am convinced it was based on the personal, ethical and political convictions of the company’s leaders.

I do not like the way it has been done, but it sure takes some guts for a CEO to defy the World order, whatever the company’s IPO said. My own site has been victim of censorship, and I was quick to blame Google when they helped censor initiatives like Charter 08,  so it is only fair that I praise them now. Search Engine Manipulation (SEM) is the worst kind of censorship, because it leads the user to believe that the information contained in search results is a fair sample of the World’s views. It was very difficult for Google to justify that behaviour, and it is good news that they stop being part of it. Bravo.

And yet, there are important reasons why Google has been putting up with the Chinese system for 4 years, and as far as I can see, all of those reasons are still there today. By leaving China on a whim, Google sends the message that all that work was just a big mistake. Worse still, by slamming the door on the way out, Google creates trouble for itself, for the Chinese netizens, and for the World internet community.

By any standard, Google’s statement last week is a disaster. It has all the sins that a company announcement can have, not only from the PR perspective, but also from plain common sense. It is insultingly self-righteous, it fails to provide a clear reason for the decision, and it does not offer evidence for any of the accusations. Worse still, it sends an ultimatum to the government of China, revealing a thirst of political power that is very disturbing in a corporation.

Brazen cartoon on the China Daily

Brazen cartoon on China Daily (WSJ)

The primary colors in Google’s logo and its simple slogan “don’t be evil” suggest a world of fairy tales where Good and Evil are clearly defined, and one can live following the Google path, righteously pointing out to others that they are in the wrong. Life is unfortunately more complex, and only very simple people can believe that God is always on their side.

Intentions and Nature of Google

I liked yesterday’s article by Rebecca Mackinnon because it rejected the idiotic debate about the purity of motive of Google’s leaders. On the other hand, I found it a bit too optimistic regarding the role of Google and the World internet community today. 

Google is no more or less evil than most corporations. The difference is it has a developed a unique business model that requires large amounts of trust and goodwill, and it has done a great job of promoting it up to now. To the point that in the online community, it has managed to reverse the classic roles, turning the radical hacktivists into CEO-huggers.

But non-evilness is not what has taken Google so far. The secret of Google, its key asset is information. Google is cool because it is in the process of hoarding and classifying all the information of the World, and this allows it to earn money in a way that is not painful to the final user. Google today stands for great,  free inventions and open systems because its clever business model, impossible to replicate in other fields, allows it to earn money this way.

But Google today is still a very young company, and more vulnerable than most netizens imagine. It is extremely strong in brand and in goodwill, which is reflected in is market value. But this value is nothing more than a promise, and its actual revenues, extremely dependent on the Search engine business, are still far from the giants in the offline World.

Every internet company is always one click away from ruin, but this is especially true for a business based on search engine ad revenue. Facebook, Twitter, Windows, most information companies count on the network effect to force people to stay with them, Google just counts on a technological gap that is closing. For Google search, the competition is always at the reach of one finger, and until Google succeeds in establishing its network of cloud services, a large part of its value still relies on goodwill.

Google’s Mistake

As I said above, Google’s decision to stop collaborating with the censors is admirable, but to engage in brinkmanship with a country is a disastrous mistake. Google enters a new and risky game, with players far more powerful than itself, where it has more to lose than to win. If it doesn’t tone down its message very quickly, it risks being completely banned from China, which is a very different thing from just closing

First of all, this would mean that it abandons the activists that it supposedly cares about, and that, the only non-manipulated search engine popular in China, will most likely be blocked. Worse still, it means that Google of all companies, the one that is proposing to keep in storage all the data of our lives, admits to being defeated by the Chinese in the business of IP protection.

From the market perspective, it is even worse. The Chinese language might make up more than one third of the whole internet in this decade, and whatever Google’s share is today, disappearing from China will have immense consequences in the future online scene. Not only it increases the dangerous divide of the internets we already mentioned, but it effectively destroys any chance of Google becoming a truly universal company.

But for Google itself, there is one thing more dangerous than all that.

Non Evil vs Politics

The motto “don’t do evil” is negative, it suggests non alignment, passive resistance to the invaders, benevolence and pacifism. It would have been much better for Google to simply stop censoring some information, critical content like the Charter 08 and its imprisoned author, while trying to content the CCP by hiding boobs and ankles. They might have still been sent out of the country, but it would have been for a good cause, and the World would have been watching.

On the contrary, by openly challenging the government of China, the onus of proof lies now entirely on Google’s shoulders. And by letting itself be seen hand in hand with the US government, Google is taking sides in World politics. The neutral, non-aligned company that was meant to become the government of the internet suddenly becomes an American corporation. How will the non-American internet see this?

A company that speaks up against some evils will be expected to fight others as well, people will start asking Google to speak against certain American policies in the Middle East, or to leave the country if it is in disagreement with the Patriot Act.  The voice will turn that Google is at the service of the USA, and for a big part of the World, including many in the West, Google will forever be marked with the stink of politics.  It will still be a good company, certainly, like the CNN. But it will just not be the company anymore.

As it is today, the Chinese government is not particularly interested in seeing Google leave, so it will not push things further. If manages to be sent out quietly and not make too big a mess of it, the situation may still end up favourably for them…

Please, Google, do not lend your name to a new American crusade. The offline World has had enough of imported freedom and democracy bombs, we don’t need the same on the internet. Democracy, like love,  has to come from the inside, it is achieved with patience and daily work, like you have been doing these four years. Stay at your post, keep working for China and for all of us, don’t let the internet be divided. And the online World will be yours.

Sharing is free, support my work:

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • email
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Digg
  • Haohao
  • StumbleUpon
  • Technorati
  • LinkedIn
  • Netvibes
  • Reddit
  • Posterous
  • Live
  • QQ书签
  • MSN Reporter
  • 豆瓣
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • MySpace
  • FriendFeed
  • Print

Comments so far ↓

  1. Jan

    Strange, Google’s move doesn’t trigger the same responses (ie. G being self-righteous, sanctimonious, or even aligned with the US gov’t) in me at all. They didn’t talk about “what’s best for China,” they didn’t write in universals, they said (again, to me) straightforwardly enough the situation, always uncomfortable, had gotten measurably worse and enough was enough. Btw, how does making a decision against censorship make Google an “American corporation”?

    Similarly, I’ve always just thought “don’t be evil” to be pseudo-cutesy short-hand for “we’re not another big faceless corporation driven solely by greed,” not the basis for a real black-and-white worldview. The people at Google don’t strike me as people who break things into clearly divided Good and Evil and act on it. I think it’s just a motto.

    For me, the question of why Google would “give up” in China now knowing that censorship hasn’t changed since it arrives answers itself. The situation HAS NOT changed since Google first arrived and is now arguably worse. It’s worth remembering that it was probable gov’t hacking of gmail accounts, not the censorship issue, that triggered this whole thing. And the hacking issue sounds like it was getting worse and affecting internal operations in China - which is a serious concern. The fact that Google hit back with its statement on censorship says to me not so much that the censorship issue had suddenly changed, but that it was the only thing it COULD hit back with.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    @Tom, Google’s move doesn’t trigger the same responses (ie. G being self-righteous, sanctimonious, or even aligned with the US gov’t) in me at all.

    Yes, it doesn’t trigger them in me either, for the moment. I am just warning about what might happen if Google starts actively fighting the Chinese government, and if more actions like last week’s blog post follow.

    I do not think their statement was clear at all: was it IP theft, or censorship, or hacking of activists accounts that made Google write it? And the ultimatum in the last paragraph is Google using all its influence to threaten the Chinese government, ie. it is using political power. Will it employ the same means when the US government crosses the line with a muslim citizen suspect of terrorism?

    Regarding the IP theft, this is a joke. All the companies here are extremely wary of this, in myindistry most have standards like the ISO 27001 for Data Security Management, we go to inimaginable lengths to try to protect confidential information, and we generally manage OK. How can Google, the super hi-tech company, now admit that it has failed to protect Gmail? and instead of finding a solution, they go and vent their frustration in public?

    NO, really, a message like G published last week is a very serious thing, and I would have expected better from them. In any normal company the guys who published that would have been fired.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Jan

    Uln, great post overall. While I can probably find a few things to disagree with, I have to say very emphatically that I personally found it more agreeable overall than most other posts and articles I’ve read on the Google matter. Thanks for sharing.

    Tom, I would say that Google’s action has provided a rallying point (perhaps in itself) for those who would be self-righteous and sanctimonious, many of whom would rally under the flag of America. To the degree that Google could’ve expected this, Google can be criticized for it. Whether you agree with this or not, it’s worth considering.

    The big question and concern for me is really about what happens to the Chinese users if Google does leave (or is forced to leave). I see more people trying to justify Google’s move than trying to answer this question, which is somewhat disappointing.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Jan

    Kai: what happens to the Chinese users is pretty much covered in my previous post Some Funny Stuff. I think that video basically summarizes the whole thing: the internet here will suck even more than it does already, and free of worthy competition the Chinese internet companies will give up any attempt to innovate and continue copying each other ad eternum. That is what happened after Facebooka and Twitter left as well (although neither of those companies had a market here even comparable to Google China’s)

    PS. Your comment was in moderation for a while because it contained a keyword, but I have already translated that word to the Chinayouren local dialect.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Jan

    Me too, I would like to see stay!

    My hats down for “Google’s statement” but as hinted, it is a fruitless move against CCP. It only hurts Google and its loyal users in China.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Jan

    When the google issue came up you were the first person I thought of. I knew youd have something to say about it, if the Tom above is the Tom I think it might mean hes also in the game. I suppose Ill check his blog as well.
    Its interesting to see the papers here and the response its got. I also supposed it had something to do with more than just censorship. Itll be interesting to see what pans out.
    Thanks for the info Uln, I will be passing on your name to all my fellow tongshis here in Van

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Jan
    Little Fish

    Based on conversations with some connected folks, it seems it was not a business decision at all.It was a culmination of life experiences and political leanings combined with the frustrations of dealing with China’s GFW mentality and closed protectionist market mentality. The similarity to Russia’s past approach seems to have set off a deep rooted hate for all that is Communist in Sergey, who initially penned the statement of withdrawl. As co-founder and friend, Larry was understanding of this position and also backed this up. Google’s team of top management with the actual China experience were flabergasted, but once the statement was made, the damage was done.

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Jan
    Little Fish

    I might add that given the percentage of the company controlled by the founders’ stocks, it is highly doubtful that the company will be able to remove either of the founders as a sacrifice to appease the Chinese gov, provided they want to stay. The “guanxi” has been trashed.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    @Little Fish: Yeah, I agree with all you say. I realize the stock is very concentrated in Silicon Valley, and in particular in the founders and early Googlers. That probably explains why the price didn’t move so much after the earth shattering announcement.

    That it is not a business decision is best evidenced by the un-businesslike announcement. I just read the guy at Managing the Dragon called it “inelegant”. It is obviously a message where a lot (too much)of thought and too much personal has been included. Only the owners of a company can do something like that, no serious professional manager would even dare.

    Now, in spite of my doom scenario above, my bet is that it will not be such a big deal. I think Google will come back to reason and avoid big game politics. Ideally, they will simply close down avoiding the media bomb of having it closed directly by the authorities, and in exchange for that the Chinese will let them go on with the rest of the services, keep unblocked, and Android business going.

    There is one thing that I always found quite amusing: everyone focuses on the manipulation of Search results on, but nobody said that is a perfectly functional search in Chinese, and that it has been offering for ever all sorts of info, including videos of Tiananmen, etc. uncensored. The search results on in Chinese show them all on first page, including links to the dissident and FLG media!

    (of course most of those websites are blocked in China if you click on them, but that has nothing to do with Google, and it is already much better that you can actually see the results with the excerpts)

    If Google manages to keep it calm and ensure the site is not blocked at the border (GFW), then the Chinese netizens will be fine, and all will be OK for Google.

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Jan

    Sure you have seen it…Just a reminder of how did Google wanted to aproach China.

    Minute 17

    You know my bet already, and I keep with it. :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. Jan
  10. Jan

    Just saw this:

    It does lend some credibility to the idea that Google backed out because of cyber attacks.

    [Reply to this comment]

  11. Feb

    Well, I don’t know. That ie6 is a crap browser is something we all know for a long time, and I remember clearly that similar things about ie6 security were said before the Google affair.

    But anyway, I never doubted that there has been attacks on Gmail and other G services, actually I would be surprised if there weren’t any. My opinion was just that Google should not back out from those attacks, and instead the right action was to use its intelligence to fight back in 2 ways:

    1- By catching the hackers red-handed so as to have unquestionable evidence against them.

    2- By improving its software and its work procedures to afford better protection to the users.

    PS. Since last week, this blog also does not support ie6 anymore, and I recommend anyone using that browser to start using firefox or Chrome ASAP. This is because more and more developers are tired of playing for ie6 standards, and some of the new plugins in WordPress don’t work for ie6.

    [Reply to this comment]

Leave a Comment

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Google and China: why it is good that leaves | CHINAYOUREN
  2. Why is Evil and should leave China | CHINAYOUREN