Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Freedoms Hang in Balance in this Clash of Titans: Google vs. China (Part I)

Mr. McGrath will be running a weekly 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. This is Part I:  Google in China - the Beginning.

Google was founded in 1998 by two friends who attended Stanford together.  Its informal motto was (and arguably is) "Do no evil". Google first began to operate in China in 2000 (Yahoo was the first "Western" internet giant with a real presence in China, 1 year earlier), when it developed its search engine which could understand and use Asian type languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

Like other Western based search engines, it was obvious to Chinese that Google's early products in China were Western in orientation.  This was attractive to certain segments of China's population (often young professionals interested in the West), but not others (who preferred "home grown" internet search engines and products).  By 2002, Google had easily surpassed Yahoo in usage in China, garnering approximately 25% of Chinese web search traffic. It must be kept in mind that, at the time, Google did not have any real physical presence in China; it was simply that internet users in China could virtually access Google the same way most of us in the USA can access websites and search engines "based" in other countries.

Without any general warning, the Chinese government blocked Google inside China on September 3, 2002. They did so using something that many of us have become familiar with - a firewall. Not surprisingly, it became known as the "Great Firewall of China". (Brief technical explanation: the flow of information that is the internet into China runs primarily through 3 massive fiber-optic pipelines.  These pipelines are modulated by routers - some of which are produced by the American company Cisco - and can be used to block certain internet traffic.)  This firewall, and the routers that make it possible, can prevent certain patterns of information or characters (such as those which make up words and phrases) from being accessed.  For example, if the term "human rights" was searched in China at the time, one might be able to see that websites discussing that concept existed, but one could not actually access the website - an error message would appear instead.  This blockage ended after a few weeks, but Google continued to experience occasional/partial blockages and delays.

For the next few years, Google continued to ponder its dilemma:  1) remain "outside" China and continuously experience signal interference and slowdowns; or 2) actually open offices in China (with government permission, subject to Chinese regulations and censorship) and not have to struggle to get its signal past the Chinese interference.  By 2005, the Chinese web search service called "Baidu" had taken almost half of the Chinese market share, with Google stuck at around 27% market share.  ("Baidu" is apparently a reference to a centuries-old Chinese poem, and means "searching hundreds of times" - searching for the ideal.)

One reason, of course, that Google had not officially taken up a physical presence in China was to avoid censoring itself, which would be required of any business officially practicing in China. Google had publicly expressed the philosophy that, by being present in China but only from the outside, it was helping to internally transform China by increasing access to otherwise restricted information, despite the partial blockages put in place. This goes back to a well known debate over whether to interact with problematic regimes/nations or to refuse to deal with them. For example, consider the USA's stance toward Cuba, with which the USA generally refuses to interact with. Then consider whether the opposite approach - influencing Cuba by flooding it with American marketing, products, and culture - would have been more effective in undermining the controlling authoritarian Castro regime and moving the people of that impoverished nation toward a more free life this last half-century.

As 2005 progressed, Google, lead by co-founder and head of government relations Sergey Brin, began to negotiate an official presence in the People's Republic of China, at the time led by President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Various interest groups and individuals monitored the situation closely, some with great optimism, others with dread. In January, 2006, Google officially opened in the People's Republic of China.

Part 2 in this series to follow on April 21.