Censorship in China: Cost of Doing Business?

Google’s creation of a local, censored website in China caused quite an uproar. But it was the last major U.S.-based search engine to do so, after MSN and Yahoo!. Did it really deserve the criticism it received? Is compromising principles simply a cost of doing business? Or is the situation far more complicated than it looks?

Google came in for some serious castigation recently when it launched a version of its search and news websites in China. These new sites featured an important difference: censorship. Specifically, Google bowed to the laws of the Chinese government, and censored material the authorities deemed objectionable.

If you’re a subscriber to our SEO Chat newsletter, you’ve already read about some of this. But you might not have heard about the ongoing uproar over the situation. In a way, it seems a little surprising, since Google is the last search engine to create a version of itself in tune with China’s laws. Yahoo! and MSN did it first. But there was relatively little complaining at that time, possibly for two reasons. First, there were other major search engines based in the U.S. (where free speech is supposedly sacred) that didn’t censor their content, and that Chinese web surfers could try to use. Second, Yahoo! and MSN don’t have the phrase “Don’t be evil” as part of their corporate culture.

Reporters Without Borders condemned Google; so did Congressional representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), in very strong terms. Everyone seems to think that Google and the other companies have “sold out” their moral principles in order to make a quick buck. Some even include Cisco in that corporate gang of shame because China uses Cisco routers to filter the information its citizens can access through the Internet.

As often happens in these cases, though, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. Few things are ever black and white; how can a company do the right thing when it’s frequently hard to tell what the right thing actually is? On what do you base your standard of what is “right” when you’re a business with a literally global reach – and there is no worldwide consensus? These questions are worth keeping in mind as we look at the story so far.

I’ll start specifically with what Google did to earn itself this condemnation. I’m getting my information chiefly from the statement that Google sent to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus briefing early this month, as well as sources in the press (though quotes in this paragraph and the next will be from that statement). Google didn’t just arbitrarily decide to create a censored, local version of itself in China. According to the search engine, it was receiving reports that its service in China left something to be desired, “due in large measure to the extensive filtering performed by Chinese Internet service providers (ISPs).” Problems included painfully slow service, frequent unavailability, and results that stalled out the user’s browser. In Google’s opinion, it could only solve these problems by creating a local service inside China.

Obviously, in order to operate the service inside China, Google had to “remove some sensitive information from our search results. These restrictions are imposed by Chinese laws, regulations, and policies.” But Google doesn’t exactly remain mute about this; when it has to remove results, it includes a note, clearly visible on the SERPs page, disclosing this fact. “This is not, to be sure, a tremendous advance in transparency to users,  but it is at least a meaningful step in the right direction.”

Certain other services that Google offers will not be available at all in China. Its blogging service is one example. Officials in China consider it too sensitive, and too likely to create political flashpoints that the Chinese government would prefer not to deal with.

Is this move really worthy of the outcry that Google has received? In a sense, Google was just trying to improve its service to certain users. Okay, perhaps that is simply a thin rationalization, but consider this: Google’s action has been tarred with the same brush that was used on Microsoft and Yahoo! for potentially more obnoxious actions.

In Microsoft’s case, the company admitted that it removed the blog of an outspoken Chinese journalist from its MSN Spaces site, and that it censored words like “freedom” and “democracy” from its Chinese MSN portal site. In Yahoo!’s case, the company was accused of providing information that was used by Chinese officials to convict a journalist charged with leaking state secrets. If Yahoo! really did this, its employees will have Shi Tao on their consciences for the next 10 years.

I would like to point out that in all cases, these companies were merely following the law of the land in which they chose to do business. Granted, we have a long history in the United States of civil disobedience and even breaking the law to do business (just consider how many fine Boston banking fortunes were based on practices we would consider questionable today) — but that doesn’t give us the right to export our traditions. Please keep that in mind as you read about the reactions to what these companies have done.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders was quick to criticize Google for its action. The group’s statement made clear its belief that certain principles could not, or at least should not, be compromised. “The launch of Google.cn is a black day for freedom of expression in China…Freedom of expression isn’t a minor principle that can be pushed aside when dealing with a dictatorship…By offering a version without ‘subversive’ content, Google is making it easier for Chinese officials to filter the Internet themselves. A website not listed by search engines has little chance of being found by users. The new Google version means that even if a human rights publication is not blocked by local firewalls, it has no chance of being read in China.”

Human Rights in China, a New York-based human rights group, analyzed what Google’s filtered Chinese version was leaving out by comparing its results with searches performed on the Taiwan version. A search on “Falungong,” a spiritual movement outlawed in China, returned Falungong-managed sites in the Taiwan version of Google, but anti-Falungong websites in the China-based version.

Needless to say, the group was not pleased. “Google joins a host of other leading technology companies, including Microsoft and Yahoo, who have bowed to Chinese government demands in attempts to gain ground among the growing online population. Rather than exercising corporate leadership, these companies and others have instead engaged in ‘a race to the bottom,’ making concessions that curtail freedom of expression and access to information in China.”

Even members of Congress are less than happy. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees (among other things) global human rights, blasted Google in a statement on his website. “It is astounding that Google, whose corporate philosophy is ‘don’t be evil,’ would enable evil by cooperating with China’s censorship policies just to make a buck. China’s policy of cutting off the free flow of information is prohibitive for the growth of democracy and the rule of law. Many Chinese have suffered imprisonment and torture in the service of truth — and now Google is collaborating with their persecutors.”

Two Congressional meetings on human rights, China, and the Internet were scheduled for February 2006. Four companies were invited to testify: Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, and Cisco. While no representatives from these companies attended the first meeting (though all sent statements), the second one should get better attendance: since it will be held under the auspices of the House International Relations Committee, organizers will have the power to send subpoenas and force companies to send representatives.

Are all of these companies simply selling out? China boasts a population of 1.3 billion, with more than 100 million Internet users. That market is practically impossible to ignore, especially if you are a technology company looking to grow your share of the marketplace.

But anyone who says the major search engines are merely selling out must explain why this instance of self-censorship is more egregious than the ones they have committed in the past. Germany and France, home of the very vocal Reporters Without Borders, insist that search engines accessed by their citizens censor certain Nazi-related content. Even users in the United States get censored results (though, for the record, I couldn’t make Google turn up a SERPs page that had been filtered, despite several attempts and having a vague idea of the sort of thing Google would filter).

For most people it is clearly worse because Google and the other search engines are bowing to a dictatorship. But the argument that Google makes — that some information getting through is better than none at all — must be taken seriously. And it may not be alone in its opinion. Indeed, it has been engaging in a certain amount of outreach with other companies that face the same problems. In its statement mentioned earlier, Google said that, “Together with colleagues at other leading Internet companies, we are actively exploring the potential for Internet industry guidelines, not only for China but for all countries in which Internet content is subjected to governmental restrictions.”

The action may not be limited to the industry level, however. There are politicians in the U.S. (such as the aforementioned Rep. Chris Smith, and Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio) who are threatening to pass laws restricting U.S. companies from cooperating with the Chinese government on censorship. While Google does see a role for the U.S. government, these are not the regulations it is looking for. “In addition to common action by Internet companies, there is an important role for the United States government to address, in the context of its bilateral government-to-government relationships, the larger issues of free expression and open communication. For example, as a U.S.-based company that deals primarily in information, we have urged the United States government to treat censorship as a barrier to trade.”

Who is responsible for standing up for principles? Is it valid to “knuckle under” in the hope that this will help achieve a greater goal in the long term? Is that even a valid argument coming from a company trying to do business in a market too lucrative to miss? Do we really have the right to try to force our beliefs on other countries with a very different tradition? And finally, if some human rights are so basic that we do have that right, when — and for whom — does it become an obligation? The way companies must do business in China, if they choose to do business in China, raises these questions, but gives us no answers that everyone can agree upon.

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