As corporate mission statements go, Google’s is simple enough: “Don’t be evil.” This isn’t asking much from its employees. It’s vague and meaningless, as most corporate mission statements are. It’s a mantra only suitable until the going gets tough. Who applauds evil, anyway?
This week Google, by far the most popular search engine and with a history of saying how devoted it is to the free flow of uncensored information, is preparing now to get in bed with the Chinese Communist Party. So much for shunning evil.
“Google is planning to launch a censored version of its search engine in China that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest,” the web site Intercept reported. “Teams of programmers and engineers at Google have created a custom Android app just for China. Various versions are named ‘Maotai’ and ‘Longfei’ and they been rolled out to the Chinese government for inspection and editing. The final version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending approval from Chinese officials.
Only eight years ago, Google sounded a roll of drums and fanfare of brass and woodwinds to announce that it was shutting down its Chinese search engine after it suffered cyber attacks that smelled of Communist mischief. Google had operated in the country since 2006 but it was far from the market leader in searches by customers in China; the leader was homegrown Baidu, so shutting down was not particularly courageous nor economically damaging. It was still right and refreshing, an American company refusing to bow down to the Communists.
At first, Google’s Chinese site simply redirected users to its Hong Kong search engine. But that was eventually blocked, and Beijing placed Google, along with other American tech giants like Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube, behind its so-called “Great Firewall.” That prevented users from getting access to the Web unless the user went online on a so-called “virtual private network.”
But in the years since, the Chinese market has boomed. There are almost 800 million Chinese mobile Internet users. The Chinese consumer is a lot richer than he was in 2010, so taking a stand for the free exchange of ideas now doesn’t sound so good. Principles and convictions are fungible, as the corporate suits might say. Ideals are fine and all that, but in their place, and their place is not on a balance sheet. There’s big money to be made on the Chinese Internet, and Google wants a (big) share.
That Chinese Internet, which looks so lucrative, is heavily censored by a Chinese Communist Party fearful of the people getting any fancy ideas about freedom and democracy. Among the terms blocked from Chinese searches are “human rights” and “Tiananmen Square” and websites like the BBC. Indeed, Google cited not only cyber attacks it suffered, but also censorship, when it pulled out of China to protest “evil” eight years ago. “We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China,” the company said, “yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement.” Three years after that, Chairman Eric Schmidt still boasted that “Google believes very strongly in a free Internet.”
Censorship remains the legal requirement in China, and Google has apparently decided that that’s OK. “Documents seen by The Intercept, marked ‘Google confidential,’ say that Google’s Chinese search app will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall,” the website reported. “When a person carries out a search, banned websites will be removed from the first page of results, and a disclaimer will be displayed stating that ‘some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.’ Examples cited in the documents of websites that will be subject to the censorship include those of the BBC and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.”
There were signs earlier that Google was planning to return to China. Chairman Schmidt hobnobbed with Chinese officials two years ago, about the time Google said it “wanted to be in China serving Chinese users.” This made the nice words about the free flow of information just so much chop suey. Money talks, and usually trumps corporate baloney. Sad.