A long list of technologists are taking Google to task for complying with China’s censorship demands in the launch of Google.cn. The citizens of China have long had access to Google.com as censored by the government in China. Google.cn is a specifically localized version in compliance with local laws. What everyone in the tech community seems to be overlooking, with the notable exceptions of Weblogs, Inc. frontman Jason Calacanis and David Weinberger, is the Chinese people are generally better off with a somewhat neutered version of Google than with no Google at all. In the United States we take for granted the right of free speech and the free market capitalism provides, including the abundance of choice in virtually every product we purchase. At this point, the choices available in China, for virtually all categories of products and services, are dramatically more limited. By offering Google.cn to the citizens of China, even in a censored form, Google is helping to expand the choices available in online search.
The many respected technologists taking a hard line opposition to Google’s move, including John Battelle, Danny Sullivan, and Philipp Lenssen, live safely in places where free speech is standard fare; Lenssen being an exception in that Google censors Nazi-related searches by government mandate where he resides in Germany. If you read the opinions of bloggers living and working in China, the picture is vastly different and largely supportive of Google.cn.
Imagethief, a blog written by Will, an American living in Beijing, is praising the Google decision, because as he puts it:
For the record, Imagethief thinks that Google is doing the right thing, and taking a reasonable approach to the conundrum of operating in China. I have to confess some disagreement with RSF’s take-no-prisoners approach to complicity with the Chinese government censorship regime, despite my respect for them as an organization. I believe that American Internet firms should remain in China, but should take as many reasonable steps as they can to avoid putting themselves in untenable situations, such as turning over e-mail communications belonging to Chinese dissidents or journalists.
Will goes on to further explain why American companies in China are important even if services don’t offer everything we get here at home:
As to why I support US Internet firms being in China, it’s a matter of providing choice for Chinese users, even if that choice isn’t as rich as what users in other countries would get. This is essentially what Google has offered up as an explanation, and I accept it. We need to be clear with ourselves what group we’re trying to serve by pressuring US (and European) Internet firms to withdraw from China. It certainly isn’t average Chinese users. Perhaps I see this issue through too much of a personal filter. (Perhaps all of us bloggers working and living in China do; we seem to have similar opinions on this issue.) I work with seventy Chinese colleagues, almost all of whom use Google to run searches as part of their work and 100% of whom use MSN messenger to chat with friends, colleagues etc. (Don’t ask me why; that’s what they like. I’m an AIM user myself.) I certainly wouldn’t want to be the person wandering around the office explaining that the MSN Messenger servers were no longer accessible to them because Americans felt it was inappropriate for Microsoft to offer it as a service to them as long as it meant following Chinese content restrictions. And I certainly don’t see how restricting them to Chinese Internet services only serves their interests, even though it may salve our national conscience.
Danwei, a business blog covering China offers a fairly neutral perspective on the issue, neither commending Google nor condemning them, while pointing out that Google.com often returns unavailable notices or gets redirected to government Web sites in times of crisis now, optimistically hoping this will not be the case with Google.cn. A scan of the Danwei comments offers intelligent discourse on the subject as a whole, with numerous links to additional sources.
EastSouthWestNorth points out that while information is censored, it’s not impossible to get at (or at least not yet). The blog suggests strategies for discovering information through search using multiple solutions including both Google.cn and Google.com in addition to China-based Baidu, which is also censored.
The China Stock Blog is an additional voice of reason, stripping the issue of emotion and getting to the crux of the situation:
Is the situation ideal in China ideal? No. Is it better for the Chinese people if they have access to Google, but it be censored? Clearly yes. The government is making a huge mistake in thinking that by blocking terms like democracy, somehow they’ll be able to stem a democratic movement. It’s the exchange of information, and ideas in general, that will allow popular organization to grow like plants in concrete, ultimately causing huge fissures and cracks. The argument that Google is doing something wrong sounds like the same argument people use when they argue that manufacturers are doing something wrong by not offering workers, in developing countries, Western-level wages and conditions. Ultimately, it’s a step.
My point in making comment is the issue isn’t as simple as boycotting Google or attempting to force Google out of China altogether until they stand up to the government of China. Taking retaliatory action might make a bunch of political activists in the United States feel good because it creates a common cause to rally round, but it doesn’t provide any benefit to the intended beneficiaries: Citizens of China. This has nothing to do with Google’s soul; public companies have no soul to lose. The people living in China could be in a far worse position without companies from the outside providing choices, even if those choices aren’t identical to what we get here in the United States. No choice is more closely related to no likelihood for improvement in the future.
The real test isn’t whether Google stands firm against censorship demands from China in the current climate, but whether Google.cn and other services like it gradually grow more open with incremental improvements happening in China going forward.