Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Freedoms Hang in Balance in this Clash of Titans: Google vs. China, Part 3

Mr. McGrath will be running a series of blog posts regarding the dispute between Google and China, primarily because, whether we realize it or not, both of these entities influence billions of people on a daily basis and are locked in a battle over money and control - and, ultimately, freedom and civil rights. Part 1 dealt with the background of Google and other internet search engine companies entering China. We left off in Part 2 after Google had officially launched inside China in 2006 after compromising with the Chinese Government.

This is Part 3 - Google's Chinese Growing Pains, 2007 - 2009.

In January, 2007 - one year into its official China presence - Google had a 19% market share.  This was compared to the regional leader, a Chinese search engine company called "Baidu", which had 63% of the market.  As discussed in Part 1 of this series, Google had as high as 25% of the market share earlier in the decade (before it was "officially" in China, and before Baidu was a true competitor).  In an effort to expand its business, Google began to offer mobile content in China in conjunction with "China Mobile", the government-controlled telecom entity.

The same month, Google admitted it was already second-guessing its decision to agree to censorship in cooperation with the Chinese government. Co-founder Sergey Brin was quoted as saying . "On a business level, that decision to censor was a net negative." Google was also suffering from repeated cyber attacks in China.

In August, 2008 Google offered free music downloads to its Chinese users, in order to further compete with Baidu.[1] In January, 2009, China criticizes Google and other search engine companies for failing to do enough to block access to pornography. In an effort to be fair, we must acknowledge that much of what China seeks to censor is content which many others in the world censor - or want to. How many millions of Americans, for example, would like to have online pornography censored completely due to their own moral beliefs?

On March 24, 2009, China blocked access to after a video of Chinese police officers beating Tibetan protesters appeared on it. The block was lifted four days later. For those of you who did not know, Google acquired YouTube in October, 2006. One part of is, which is described by Google as being used primarily "to shine a light on issues that need more exposure; to drive action around causes they care about; and to create connections between people and organizations that share their desire to make a difference."

In June, 2009, Google's Chinese search engine and GMail in China were temporarily blocked.  Chinese authorities indicated that it was because Google was assisting in the spreading of obscene material. Perhaps spreading "obscene material" was helpful in Google's Chinese market share rising to 30% for the first time (in July, 2009).

Kai-Fu Lee, the Taiwan-Chinese who was named head of Google's China operations during the planning phases in 2005, resigned in September, 2009. This was big news for various reasons, including the high opinion held of Dr. Lee by many young adult Chinese.  The speculation was that he had grown weary of the pressure constantly applied by the Chinese government. Interestingly, while Google's self-authored "Timeline" contains an entry regarding the hiring of Dr. Lee (which came after legal battles between Google/Dr. Lee and Dr. Lee's former employer Microsoft), it does not mention his resignation, nor does it mention the putting in place of his replacement.

In October, 2009, a group of Chinese authors filed lawsuits against Google, claiming violation of copyrights regarding digital book downloads. See the footnote to appreciate the irony of this.

Throughout the incidents of increased censorship and interference, Google did not make much in the way of public response, although we can presume that intense discussions occurred behind the scenes. Its market share in China slowly rose between 2007 and 2009, and the instances of direct interference from Chinese authorities was not as bad as perhaps feared.  Nevertheless, we know that the censorship imposed by China continued to be a bitter pill to swallow for the founders and leaders of Google, whose very lives have focused on accessing and distributing information around the world.  Even so, few knew that a huge shift in Google's approach to and  relationship with China was about undergo a dramatic change.

Part 4 in this series to follow on May 4.

[1] Let me offer some brief background and commentary here on a related point. One of the issues with regard to China which frustrates and worries many in the international community is that the Chinese government is not always willing to enforce protection of copyrights, patents, etc. from other nations (including rights to music and other intellectual property). From the Chinese perspective, and in the short-term, it might make sense: "We will allow our citizens to have, for free, anything (not censored) they can get their hands on; this may improve their lives and contentment yet cost them and us nothing." Also, the Chinese Government and its associated companies have long been known to engage in industrial espionage, even more enthusiastically than most other countries.