Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Freedoms Hang in Balance in this Clash of Titans: Google vs. China, Part 2

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. We left off in Part I as Google was about to launch as a formal business inside Chinese borders in 2006. This is Part 2 - Google Jumps into a Hurricane.

Just a bit more crucial background needs to be communicated before we get into Google's actual launch inside China. In September, 2005, it came to light that Yahoo had provided the Chinese government with private information which allowed China to identify - and arrest - Shi Tao, who had used his otherwise anonymous Yahoo email account to spread inside information regarding China's efforts against a New York based Chinese democracy website.  Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In December, 2005, Microsoft agreed to a demand by China to delete internet writings by Zhao Jing, a Chinese blogger promoting freedom of speech.  (Zhao Jing had gained some measure of fame after being interviewed by a New York Times reporter.) Microsoft's blogging service had no servers inside China - it agreed to erase information stored on and broadcast from America.

At the end of 2005, as Google prepared to launch as a formal, sanctioned business inside China - and thus subject to censorship as demanded by the Chinese government - Google had to figure out what websites had to be blocked and how to present those blocks to its Chinese users.  While one would think that the Chinese government would have maintained an official "black list" and given Google the same, no such list was provided. Instead, what Google did was run web searches inside China using key words it suspected might be troublesome; if a site was blocked when they searched it, it went onto Google's list of sites to block.

Google also decided that its web search results pages would inform searchers inside China if websites had been removed from the search results. Google's decision to do this was not shared with Chinese officials before Google launched inside China on January 27, 2006. For example, let's suppose at the time that someone in China wanted to find out if ole Guns-N-Roses had made any progress on that long planned "Chinese Democracy" album, and used to search for the same. The search would have returned some results, but many other results would have been censored and not displayed.  The Google search results page would contain a disclaimer statement informing the searcher that some results could not be displayed due to Chinese law.

In light of the hurricanes of negative publicity suffered by both Yahoo and Microsoft when those two companies gave in to Chinese intimidation, Google made efforts in advance to protect private information and its Chinese users. A Google representative testified to the U.S. Congress in February 2006: "[For] protection of user privacy, we will not maintain on Chinese soil any services, like email, that involve personal or confidential data. This means that we will not, for example, host Gmail or Blogger, our email and blogging tools, in China."  Clearly, Google saw itself as taking reasonable measures to do better than its American competitors had in this regard. During that same Congressional hearing, Google admitted that formally entering China would compromise its two fundamental commitments, but pointed out that formally staying out of China was already doing the same.  (Those two fundamental commitments were stated to be: (a) a business commitment to satisfy the interests of users, and by doing so to build a leading company in a highly competitive industry; and (b) a policy conviction that expanding access to information to anyone who wants it will make our world a better, more informed, and freer place.)

Human rights activists, technology enthusiasts, members of the media, Chinese citizens, and even governments began to explore "" immediately. One popular search, of course, was "Tibet", while another was "Tiananmen Square".  Searches for "Tibet" returned mostly anti-Tibet sites, while those for "Tiananmen Square" failed to return websites referencing the historic anti-Chinese government events which took place there. was completely blocked.

On the other hand, we must consider another key fact, often overlooked, which speaks well of Google. Despite launching the formal search engine at "" inside China, Google did not take down its Chinese "" search engine.  Thus, for a period of time, someone in China could usually access the official and unofficial Google web search engines, with the unofficial results typically uncensored.

The same month as the Congressional hearings mentioned above (at which Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft were all hammered by U.S. Congressmen), The New York Times again met in Beijing with the by-then well known Chinese freedom of speech blogger, Zhao Jing. When asked about Google, Zhao had generally kind words and recognized that Google was seeking reasonable compromises.  With regard to Microsoft, Zhao had mixed feelings - perhaps generous, from an American perspective, given that Microsoft had deleted his freedom of speech blog at the demand of his oppressive government. As far as Yahoo, Zhao described the company as a "sellout" and commented that the Chinese people "hate  Yahoo".

The head of Google's China operation in 2006 was 44 year old Kai-Fu Lee, who was born in Taiwan*, educated in part at both Columbia and Carnegie-Mellon, and worked for Apple in California as well as Microsoft in China. He was already well-known in China. When Google hired him away from Microsoft in 2005, his personal website proclaimed, in Chinese, "Youth + Freedom + Equality + Bottom-up Innovation + User Focus + Don't Be Evil = The Miracle of Google." Yet when The N.Y. Times interviewed him several months later, he stated quite seriously that many Chinese do not hunger for "freedom" in the manner that Americans appear to think they do. Rather, Chinese tend to take the long view, be more patient than Americans, and accept the life around them as opposed to constantly thinking about changing it. In the years following its formal entry into China, Google would find out whether it could survive and thrive in China without violating its founding conviction of "Don't Be Evil".

Part 3 in this series to follow on April 28.

* As a reminder, Taiwan is the island just to the southeast of the Chinese mainland, and is not all that far north of the Philippines. Taiwan was more or less part of China until the late 1940s, when it became the last stronghold of the military dictator driven off the mainland by Mao.  Taiwan maintained its independence from the then-new People's Republic of China, but was never formally recognized as a separate nation by the world community due to opposition of this by China.  Taiwan transitioned to a democratic form of government in the 1990s, further aggravating China - which always held the position that Taiwan is part of China and should be directly ruled by Beijing. Taiwan continuously straddles the line between antagonizing the People's Republic of China and acting as an independent state. Most observers believe that China would have invaded Taiwan and forcefully returned it to full Beijing control if not for the support Taiwan has received from the United States, sometimes including the presence of U.S. Naval warships in the region.