Search Engine Diplomacy

How tech companies should do business in China.

In the last week, Google has faced sharp criticism for its decision to censor search results in China. But it’s not the only tech company whose products serve the ends of the Chinese government. Yahoo! turned in a Chinese journalist. Cisco’s routers help the state monitor Internet traffic and block sites they don’t approve of. Oracle’s databases can potentially keep tabs on China’s citizens. Juniper Networks provides firewall applications. Intel and Motorola sell semiconductors that power the government’s computers.

Pretty much every tech company is complicit in helping the Chinese government repress its citizenry. The difference is that Google prides itself on offering “unbiased, accurate and free access to information.” During a panel discussion at Davos, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that Google tries its best to “Do No Evil,” but the company must follow a nation’s laws and customs. On the “evil scale,” the company calculated it was less evil to censor than to deprive the Chinese of its search engine. (That led Bill Gates to crack that maybe Google’s motto should be “do less evil.”)

We can wring our hands all we want, but companies, which are beholden to their shareholders, will inevitably enter the already huge, still-growing Chinese market. Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, and Google dodge the implications of this business decision by claiming their products are politically neutral. In fact, these companies are actively perpetuating and enhancing government repression. The newly launched handles the censorship the Chinese government used to undertake on its own. Type in “Tibet Freedom” at, and you’ll see a flurry of links dedicated to the Dalai Lama; do the same on and you get pro-Chinese government sites. [Clarification, 2/1/06: While this was true when I searched for “Tibet Freedom” on on 1/27/06, when I redid this search today I got sites about the Dalai Lama, a couple of brief blurbs about “Free Tibet” concerts, and a link to the pro-Tibet site]

So, if censorship and failing to maximize profits are both evil, how should tech companies go about doing business in China? Some have suggested that major tech companies should band together to pressure the Chinese government to loosen restrictions on Internet content. Rebecca MacKinnon, a blogger and CNN’s former Beijing bureau chief, suggests that these companies pledge to be more transparent, pushing for policies that protect Chinese citizens from government snooping and resisting requests to censor bloggers. Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Oracle, Lucent, and Cisco have a combined market capitalization of more than half a trillion dollars. Shouldn’t they be able to apply enough pressure to wrangle a few concessions?

Instead of promoting the mantra that information wants to be free, Google et al., have done the opposite in China. They have tapped native Chinese to run their operations there, which plays well in Asia—many Chinese believe that Google’s pro-censorship policies are a sign they respect local authority. Although this“sinicization” process is pragmatic, it means the company’s values will reflect those of China, not America. Sure, executives in Northern California probably have the final word, but they are not going to contradict the people they brought in to conquer the Chinese market, especially since they are leading them to untapped riches.  

It is ironic that Google would fight a U.S. government subpoena one week, then turn around and let a foreign government dictate what information it can supply its users. Google is even refusing to appear before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus to confront questions about its business dealings in China. Of course, you can fight the U.S. government, while you can’t do anything of the sort in China—or at least you probably won’t win.

The more interesting parallel between Google’s recent entanglements in America and China is they both have to do with countries policing online material. Whether it’s political content, illicit search terms, gambling, or pornography, pretty much every country has a list of sites and behaviors it wants to block. Google in Germany doesn’t provide results for sites that sell Nazi memorabilia and does the same in France for anything deemed racist. In the United States, the hot-button issue is material the government claims is harmful to minors.     

Perhaps we’re entering an era in which each country’s routers will be monitored and filtered and search engines will be forced to follow the dictates of government-approved blacklists. This might shield a large percentage of the population but won’t work with everyone. There is almost always a way around censorship. In China, some dissident bloggers rely on foreign servers to host their sites and frequently change their domain names until they are blocked again. They play word games by replacing Chinese characters with those that sound the same when spoken but have a different meaning when spelled out. Even Google is vulnerable to this tactic in English. As Slate contributor Paul Boutin has noted, the results you get on vary depending on how you spell things.

Google and the others should remember that censorship runs counter to what brought them success. Without the free flow of information the Internet allows, each of them would be a fraction of the size they are today. Instead of rejiggering their products and mission for each country, they should apply one set of ethical standards across all borders. A global code of ethics might also make business sense. One standard always costs less than several different ones. If it’s more efficient to build one camera for every market than 20 different cameras for 20 different markets, then wouldn’t the same be true in information technology?