Google in China: any cause for hope?

As you’ve doubtless heard half a dozen times so far today, Google has launched a new service in China. For years, Google has provided a Chinese-language service. It was hosted in the United States and frequently blocked by the Great Firewall. As a result, Google started losing market share in China to Baidu, a Chinese search engine.

Now Google’s launched a service hosted in China, staffed by Chinese citizens, built to comply with Chinese law. What this means is that searches for certain terms will be filtered so that internet users in China see only sites unblocked by the firewall.

I’m confident that my colleague Rebecca Mackinnon will have a much more detailed comparison of the search engines, as she actually reads Chinese. But here’s an experiment I did, searching for “太石村” – Taishi, a village in Guangzhou, which experienced a severe government crackdown after attempts were made to oust a corrupt government official.

Here’s what the results look like on Google’s prior Chinese-language search, http://www.google.com/intl/zh-CN/:

google.com

And here’s what it looks like on Google.cn’s new search:

google.cn

You’ll notice that the top results for the search on the US search engine are for wikipedia pages. Wikipedia is currently blocked in Chinaevidently, Google.cn is not providing links to these wikipedia pages in compliance with the wishes of the Chinese government – Google.cn results don’t include the wikipedia pages.

Update – I’m wrong about this. Google.cn does index wikipedia pages. But searches for certain sensitive keywords force google.cn to give you results only from pages hosted in China. So a search for a keyword like “falun gong” will only search Chinese pages and won’t return results from wikipedia. Far more about this on another blog post.

It’s also worth noting that the Google.cn search lists about 11,000 matches while the Google.com search lists almost 50,000 matches. That’s a pretty major disparity.

Google says that pages that have edited search results will have a message mentioning that some results are blocked – I don’t read Chinese, so I can’t confirm if this notice exists. Google also said there would be a prominent link to the old, more complete search interface.

It’s been popular to ask Google whether they really think this new move is compatible with their unofficial corporate motto, “Don’t be evil.” Rebecca MacKinnon titles her post on the topic, “Degrees of Evil”, mentioning that she needs to look more closely at the implementation to see just how evil Google is being. David Weinberger observes that this situation “shows once and for all that Google’s motto is just silly in a world as complex as this one.”

As they so often are, my colleagues are both right. The devil’s in the details. And the attention taken to detail tells me that Google has thought long and hard about what they were doing and come up with a compromise. It’s a compromise that doesn’t make me happy, that probably doesn’t make most of the people who work for Google very happy, but which has been carefully thought through. And that, I think, gives some reason for optimism.

First, some disclosure: Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s Senior Policy Counsel, quoted in this WSJ story on the Chinese site, is a close friend, a colleague and someone I’ve authored papers with. While we’ve not talked about Google’s decision to launch this site, we’ve talked at length about other ethical issues involving net filtering and censorship. I know that he thinks very carefully about these issues and I feel comfortable asserting that he’s spent hundreds of hours looking for a solution for Google that tries to maintain Google’s integrity while allowing it to provide service to Chinese users. I’m also willing to admit that my fondness for Andrew personally means that I’m more willing to give Google the benefit of the doubt than I otherwise would be.

In launching Google.cn, Google made an interesting decision – they did not launch versions of Gmail or Blogger, both services where users create content. This helps Google escape situations like the one Yahoo faced when the Chinese government asked for information on Shi Tao, or when MSN pulled Michael Anti’s blog. This suggests to me that Google’s willing to sacrifice revenue and market share in exchange for minimizing situations where they’re asked to put Chinese users at risk of arrest or detention.

This, in turn, gives me some cause for hope. Google showed a willingness to stand up to the US DOJ by not offering information to help the department support a controversial anti-pornography statute. Is it possible that Google will stand up to the Chinese government to a greater extent than MSN or Yahoo? This isn’t as easy as it sounds – Google would need to construct very clear policies for their Chinese staff to ensure that members of staff with access to information didn’t release info to friends who work for the Chinese security services through “informal” channels.

But it’s possible that Google could do a great deal of good by demonstrating that US companies can stand up to Chinese authorities without losing their opportunity to operate within the country. If they demonstrated this, it’s possible that a code of conduct like the one proposed by Reporters Without Borders might be more realistic.

(Of course, it’s also possible that the Chinese government will pressure Google to remove the link to the old site and any text about censored results. Or that Google will worry they’re losing market share and introduce the services more likely to get users into trouble. My point: if one gives them the benefit of the doubt, it’s possible that Google might actually try hard not to be evil in this case. Or to be minimally evil.)

The Internet has been an amazing tool for freedom in repressive nations. Because the ‘net is capable of crossing international borders, it’s functionally outside a repressive state like Sudan or Myanmar… and, to a large extent, it’s functionally in the US or Europe, where protections of freedom of speech and individual liberties are historically well protected. But China’s changed this equation.

By creating an Internet effectively filtered at the national border, China’s created an Internet that’s Chinese. Internationalist sites will not work as well as Chinese sites, as Wikipedia and other sites have demonstrated. Now the question is, “Will Internet companies insist on remaining on the Internet, or be willing to compromise and be on the Chinese internet?” The answer, so far, is that everyone’s willing to play along with China and build tools for the Chinese internet. Does Google get credit for doing so carefully and thoughtfully? Or blame for not refusing to play the game at all?

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8 Responses to Google in China: any cause for hope?

  1. Andrew S says:

    Ethan, could you please ask Andrew McLaughlin why the disclaimer about sites being blocked is on the bottom of the search results, rather than on the top?

    Around 90% of search users never see the bottom of the page, thus will miss the disclaimer completely. In a search on google.cn on a topic such as “Falun Gong”, seeing this disclaimer is critical, as the search results return government lies and propaganda, as all of the truthful sites are filtered out.

    I write about this further in An open letter to Google.

  2. Ethan says:

    Andrew, I’ll ask the next time I speak to him. You’ve got a number of very important points in your Open Letter – thanks for the link.

  3. Cos says:

    Some nitpicky errata…

    Or blame for refusing to play the game at all?

    Did you mean “refusing to play” or “playing”?

    I know that he think very carefully – almost sounds like bad Chinese translation :)

  4. mj says:

    Ethan,

    For non-Chinese readers, I think a comparison of the different search results from Google images illlustrates what’s happening here might be instructive.

    To wit:

    “a day on the square”

    http://images.google.com/images?q=tiananmen+square [from google.com]
    http://images.google.cn/images?q=tiananmen+square [from google.cn]

    “teddy bear vs the torture chamber”

    http://images.google.com/images?q=falun+gong [from google.com]
    http://images.google.cn/images?q=falun+gong [from google.cn]

    -M

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  8. It seems that despite negotiations with the Chinese Google still can’t get their site through. See the comments from China on my post: http://edu.blogs.com/edublogs/2006/01/googlecn_the_ch.html

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