Google and China

One piece of news that has shocked the business world this year was the decision for Google to stop censoring its searches in the People’s Republic of China. In a changing business environment where morals are increasingly thrown out of the window in exchange for profits, this move is a breath of fresh air. But is this move just a public relations ploy, or a true stand on behalf of the human rights of the consumers?

China has long been notable for its policy of Internet censorship. As a result of what has been dubbed “The Great Firewall of China,” access to websites or images relating to the Tiananmen Square incidents or the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong has been restricted. As a one-party state, the Chinese government uses such measures to avoid stirring up the people to challenge their rule. As such, when foreign companies want to secure a share in the Chinese telecommunications market, they find they have to play by the rules of Chinese censorship. Despite this being contrary to the principle of freedom of speech that many these companies were built upon, many companies have sold their proverbial souls in order to compete for the fast emerging consumer market in China.

In 2006, Google began its own Chinese language search service that followed the censorship laws of the People’s Republic of China, at google.cn. Many people accused Google of selling out and violating it’s own supposed motto of “Don’t be evil” (This motto is actually a simplification of the sixth of ten corporate philosophies of Google: “You can make money without doing evil”). While Google did agree to censor its results, it could be applauded for its efforts as compared to rival Yahoo.  According to a 2006 article from Fortune magazine’s online service (http://money.cnn.com/2006/02/15/news/international/pluggedin_fortune/index.htm?cnn=yes), Google claimed it would not allow the Chinese government to use its user information by locating its servers outside of the nation. This data could be used to punish those who performed activities that the government considered subversive. In comparison, Yahoo has stated that it cannot promise the confidentiality of those who use its services from the officials. In certain instances, the corporations has turned over information about dissidents that led to them being incarcerated, though the company claimed to have no knowledge of the nature of the demands.

In January of 2010, Google announced that it would no longer censor its search engine according to the People’s Republic’s censorship laws. This was in response to an attempt by hackers to access e-mail information of noted supporters of human rights within China. This move was earth shattering within the business community. It is very rare for a corporation to give up a potential lucrative market out of principle. However, it must be noted that Google was not the market leader in China. According to the BBC, prior to Google pulling out, it held only around a third of the market share, while the Chinese search engine Baidu accounted for over 60% of the market. According to article from CNN, less than two percent of Google’s revenues come from China (http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/01/13/google.china.analysis/index.html), making this move have a fairly soft financial impact on the corporation. And one cannot ignore the good publicity this is awarding the company, which has arguably secured its spot as a golden child of the Internet in the eyes of many.

Despite this, Google’s action has turned the attention of the public to the lack of Internet within China. And rather than quietly withdrawing from the market, it has called upon other corporations to withdraw from the market and supported legislation in the U.S. Congress that would create an annual list of nations that restricted Internet freedom (http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/mar2010/tc20100324_284005.htm). In an interview, Google co-founder Sergey Brin asserted that all businesses should make it a “high priority” to publicize China’s poor human rights record. Some other Internet companies also followed Google’s lead by withdrawing from the industry. For instance, GoDaddy.com stated it would no longer sell domain names within China.

Whether or not the move was solely due to a commitment to their ethics, Google’s move has to commended. It seems that it is becoming increasingly rare for companies to put human rights as a high priority, much less pass up potential profits for them. While this move will likely do little to change human rights and Internet freedom in China, it has to be seen as a good first step. Hopefully other corporations can follow their lead and work to improve human rights in foreign nations and for their own workers. As Google is trying to show, “You can make money without doing evil.”

Gary Rose

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