Google's Long March - InformationWeek

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1/26/2006
04:32 PM
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Google's Long March

It is very easy to spin Google's decision to censor the search results on its new Chinese Web site as a sellout. If you haven't already heard someone crowing over Google's cold, calculating betrayal of its corporate vow to Do No Evil, don't worry -- you will. Before you buy into this smugfest, however, consider another angle

It is very easy to spin Google's decision to censor the search results on its new Chinese Web site as a sellout. If you haven't already heard someone crowing over Google's cold, calculating betrayal of its corporate vow to Do No Evil, don't worry -- you will.

Before you buy into this smugfest, however, consider another angle on this story -- one that proves Google still knows how to Not Be Evil, no matter how many pundits sign up for the lynch mob looking to prove otherwise.Google is, in fact, launching a Chinese subsidiary. While the new organization will be a wholly-owned Google subsidiary, it will be based in China, employ Chinese citizens, use the ".cn" top-level domain, and run all of its servers and other infrastructure on Chinese territory. If Google plans to compete against established, extremely successful domestic players such as Sohu.com and Baidu.com, it's a useful and perhaps even essential step for the company to take.

If Google expects to operate in China, however, it will have to censor its search engine results. There is simply no way around this dilemma, and Google's management has grudgingly agreed to the concessions it will have to make.

"In order to operate from China, we have removed some content from the search results available on Google.cn in response to local law, regulation or policy," said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel. "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission."

Before you welcome Google to life in the gutter, however, consider this: When the company blacks out a search result, it will say so. It's not much, but at least it's honest.

And then there's the most important part of this story: What Google is not doing in China, at least not for the foreseeable future. The company is not doing email, nor is it providing any other messaging services. Its Chinese operation also will not provide blogging services -- a highly visible part of Google's domestic line-up, and potentially a key competitive battleground against both Yahoo and Microsoft.

You probably already guessed why Google won't bring any of these services to the Chinese market: They all carry the risk that Google will have to censor its customers' speech, rather than just its own "speech" in the form of search results. Worse yet, they carry the risk that Google could, either directly or indirectly, assist the Chinese government in hunting down, harassing, and even killing political dissidents.

I'm truly impressed with the way Google has handled itself, as evidenced by these types of decisions. By deliberately staying out of the messaging and blogging-tool markets, Google stands to sacrifice a fortune in advertising revenue, subscription fees, and other income sources. Furthermore, the company will have no choice but to cede these markets to its competitors -- at least, in the short run.

Google is not, however, thinking in terms of the short run. It is looking ahead to the time when China's economic, social, and cultural growth finally gives its population the means to break their police-state shackles. It's an admittedly optimistic vision of the future, but it's not an unreasonable one. And when that time comes, Google's executives clearly do not intend to join their colleagues at Yahoo and Microsoft, who will face some pointed questions about their companies' actions during this difficult time -- and who almost certainly will not have satisfactory answers for the country's new management.

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