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Google: don’t be holier-than-thou

Google has been applauded for its anti-censorship stand against China. But it's not the role of companies to take moral or political stands, and we shouldn't praise them when they do

In January Google announced that it would no longer self-censor its search engine in China, referencing attacks from hackers to access Chinese political activists’ emails. This past Monday, Google put that new policy into action, by re-routing China mainland users of its search engine to its site in Hong Kong.

Google agreed four years ago to establish a search engine in China that the Company would censor in line with government requirements. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin said the Company began to re-evaluate its stance after the 2008 Summer Olympics, when the Chinese government increased its censorship and meddled more in Google’s operations. Brin added that the China regime’s repression reminded him of his native Soviet Union.

In response, a Chinese government spokesman said, “We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts.” It is reported that China’s internet filters are blocking results for mainland China users of the Google Hong Kong site. Some think China might force Google out of the country entirely.

The reasons given by Google for re-routing its search engine are moral, not business, reasons. And, following its announcement, Brin became more out-spoken. In another interview, with The Guardian, Brin called on the US government to take on China over censorship, and chided Microsoft, calling its continued cooperation with Beijing “disappointing”.

Google has been largely praised by US commentators for striking a human rights blow against a repressive regime. The New York Times judged the decision “a principled and brave move,” and called upon other American companies, like Yahoo and Microsoft, to follow.  The Wall Street Journal wrote that Google “has displayed sound instincts and judgment at every step of the way in China.”

But this rush to commend Google, and accept at face value that this was a purely moral decision on the company’s part, misses a number of points. Brin told the Journal: “Ultimately I guess it is where your threshold of discomfort is. So we obviously as a company crossed that threshold of discomfort.” But Google is not so discomforted that it feels the need to leave altogether: the company is retaining most of its existing operations, including its R&D and advertisement sales.  

Those hailing Google’s move gloss over the fact that this was really as much, if not more, a business decision as a moral one. Yes, Google could lose money and already China Mobile has announced that it will cancel their deal to have Google as the search provider on its mobile handsets. But Google, despite large investments, has not been very successful in China: its market share at 33 percent is well below that of its indigenous rival, Baidu.com, with 63 percent. Lower (or even no) profits from China would not have much of a short-term impact, as current profits from the country represent only 1-2 percent of total revenues. 

Furthermore, the ongoing reports of hacking into Google’s systems – even if from the Chinese government – were not a good advertisement for the company worldwide. Google has to preserve its reputation as a company that users can trust with personal information, and appearing vulnerable to hackers undermines that reputation.

Finally, in the broadest business sense, Google’s move seems to me to be more directed to the West than the Beijing regime. Google entered the publicly traded realm with the slogan “Don’t be evil”. It suggested they would apply moral criteria, with the aim of being one of the good guys. But more and more, the company has developed an image of an overgrown, compromised and even wicked monstrosity. There have been ongoing anti-trust and privacy concerns, in addition to the criticisms for being complicit with China’s censorship. It has been as if Google is following in the footsteps of Microsoft.

And so, in this context, standing up to Chinese censorship is a way to put a new shine on what was becoming a tarnished brand. There were probably many business considerations that led to the Google announcement, but, they must have thought, we might as well get credit for making a moral decision, and try to regain some of that lost credibility.

As it happens, I think it is fine that Google’s decision was probably one driven by business considerations more than moral or political ones – that is the basis upon which companies should make decisions. Rob Killick put it well recently in spiked:

I was always irritated by Google’s ‘don’t be evil’ motto and it has proved self-defeating, especially through Google’s acceptance of censorship in China. Businesses have no right to describe themselves as ‘good’ or ‘evil’, but should rather be judged by the quality of their products and their ability to sustain and develop them. Businesses that flagrantly transgress the law or which upset public opinion will receive their punishment in the end.

The problem is that Google – in order to retain the “don’t be evil” image – is trying to disguise its business-based decision by getting on its high horse about human rights. This, quite understandably, opens them up to charges of hypocrisy. As Danny Sullivan argues:

So Google was wrong the first time. Why are they right now? Why should anyone believe that getting out is suddenly the move businesses should make or that now stronger US action on Chinese censorship is needed. What credibility does Google have to dictate anything?... If China’s so bad, set a real example. Get out entirely.

Michael Arrington agrees with Sullivan:

Whether Google is doing business with the Chinese government in 2006 or pulling out of the market in 2010 they make the same argument that good v. evil dictates their actions.... Their hypocrisy on China is stunning.

Google can be criticized for adopting a holier-than-thou approach. But more to the point, we shouldn’t be calling on Google or any other company to stand up against human rights abuses or fight any other political battles, nor praise them when they do. Companies like Google should get off the pulpit and get back to producing innovative products.

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