Cloud Street

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The hippies were evil

Like a lot of people, I've been playing around with the Chinese version of Google. If my searches are anything to go by, they don't seem bothered about whether you know about the Dalai Lama, but they do seem to be concerned that you get the right sources on Falun Gong (which is a very bad thing) and the Taishi Village incident (which probably never happened). The nastiest piece of censorship I've seen so far concerns the BBC news site, which seems to be blocked in its entirety. But I've only scratched the surface, and obviously I can't speak for the results of Chinese-language searches.

Here in Britain, Google redirects 'google.com' invocations to google.co.uk, from where you can choose to go to google.com if you really want to. Danny explains: "Google routinely redirects those outside the US to a country-specific version of Google. Those who want to reach Google.com can do so by selecting the "Google.com in English" link on the home page of these versions." (The link on the .co.uk page doesn't specify 'in English'.) So in China it's still possible to use google.com as well as google.cn. Similarly in France and Germany, where google.fr and google.de search results are silently censored to comply with legislation banning neo-Nazism. But it gets worse: thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act there is (visible) censorship on google.com, which appears to be replicated on all the country-specific Googles. (Try searching for 'kazaalite'.) And, of course, we don't know whether there is any silent censorship. Considering that we know of effective public campaigns to bring pressure to bear on Google, it seems unlikely that no pressure has been exerted behind the scenes. (More on google.fr and google.de here; these are some of the sites that are hidden, and here's how it's done.)

David's argument is typical of the bloggers who are calling for Google to be shown some leniency with regard to this one. I don't share his conclusions, primarily because I don't agree with his premise. His argument seems to start from identification with the people at Google who have had a hard choice to make and have done, in their judgment, the best they could: "It's a tough world. Most of what we do is morally mixed.", and so forth. But for me the operative metric is not the relative quality of service Google can provide the people of China - which is certainly higher under the google.cn regime - but Google's relative complicity with restrictions on the free flow of information. This is important because of Google's extraordinarily unusual position. The company does one thing; the one thing it does - provide information - is an unqualified ethical good; and it does it well. Any complicity with censorship tarnishes the company's ethical reputation; it also threatens its reputation for delivering its service well, since it suggests that this can be compromised by external considerations. The Google.cn story threatens Google on both these grounds. Previously, Google was guilty of tolerating censorship; now, it's guilty of assisting censorship.

David concedes that this story "shows once and for all that Google's motto is just silly in a world as complex as this one". I'd go further. Unless you take the (Lutheran?) view that obedience to the government - any government - is a pious duty, Google's co-operation with the Chinese government has made nonsense of their proclaimed commitment to avoid evil. But I'd also add that Google crossed that line some time ago, when they doctored search results to comply with French, German and US law - and, in the case of France and Germany, did so without any indication that results were incomplete.

Ultimately this is primarily a lesson about what Will (in a completely different context) calls digital exuberance - and about the enthusiasm for big business - as long as it's a cool big business which I identified as a growing element of "Web 2.0". (Hang on to those double-quotes, you'll be glad of them later.) Owen sums it up:
I now notice that the corporate philosophy illustrates "don’t be evil" with the example that advertisements should be unobtrusive; and [Eric Schmidt and Hal Varian, writing in Newsweek] interpreted it to mean that management should not throw chairs. Google never actually said they would not cut a deal with an undemocratic regime to deny information and access to news to hundreds of millions of repressed people. But that was the kind of thing that "don’t be evil" implied to me.

I have some sympathy with Google’s dilemma - they are, after all, a shareholder-owned company, not a branch of Reporters sans frontières. But companies that say one thing and do another eventually get themselves into trouble.

Google was once the underdog; a quirky startup, doing one thing (search) really well: and quickly without all those annoying ads. We got cool free gizmos, like Google Earth and webmail with big storage. And it seemed to have a corporate philosophy that hackers and the internet generation could relate to. Today Google seems a lot more like Microsoft, AOL or any other large corporation. It buys companies to get their technology (what exactly has Google invented, since PageRank?). It introduces Digital Rights Management systems for video. And now it cuts deals with the Chinese government to expand its market, instead of standing up for uncensored access to the internet.

1 Comments:

  • "Lutheran?" Perhaps; there's certainly an argument for that wording choice. And for the question mark. This Lutheran was taught that "Render unto Caesar..." doesn't mean we need to acquiesce to unreasonable governmental demands.

    Excellent essay, by the way, with interesting pointers. Thanks.

    By Blogger Joel Dinda, at 26/1/06 14:12  

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