Don’t Be Evil 2.0

Working with China didn’t help Google change the world. Not working with them might.

Google has always claimed that it didn’t go to China for the money. It went for the social change. Yes, the Chinese government required that Google censor some of its search results in exchange for doing business legally in the country, and yes, Google’s acquiescence of those restrictions have made it a target of activists all over the world—not to mention tarnished its “Don’t be evil” brand image. But giving the Chinese some access to information, Google argued, was better than giving them no access. “We concluded that although we weren’t wild about the restrictions, it was even worse to not try to serve those users at all,” Google CEO Eric Schmidt said shortly before the expansion. “We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil.”

Coming from any other firm, that justification would have seemed too self-serving; China is the world’s largest Internet market, so any tech company’s aims there seem rather straightforward. Yet it isn’t a stretch to think that Google’s executive actually did believe that leaving the Chinese without access to their sterling search engine would itself have been a kind of evil. Here is a company that prizes the Internet as the most important invention of the last few centuries. More than any other firm, Google and its employees truly believe in the transformative power of their product; not only do they believe that they’re changing the world, but in many cases they believe profit is a secondary motive. To Google, the Great Firewall of China was only a temporary hurdle—over the long run, the thinking went, as more and more Chinese got wind of the possibilities of the free world as seen through search results, the regime would be forced to slowly dismantle its infrastructure of censorship.

Well, that didn’t happen. What’s extraordinary about Google’s decision to eventually quit censoring its Chinese site and to possibly shut down its operations there—after also coming under attack from hackers who may have been sponsored by the Chinese government, which didn’t help relations—is that it represents a rare Google admission that the Internet can’t solve everything. (This is something we’ve seen elsewhere—Iran, most recently.) Google’s entry into China has done nothing to liberalize the regime’s attitude toward outside information. So if that was the point of going to China, why not quit?

That’s obvious—money. Whatever its ethical stance, can Google afford to quit China? Unlike in most of the rest of the world, Google isn’t the leading search engine in China. Baidu, a site founded in 2000 that  has been very accommodating to government censors, commands about three-quarters of the market for search there. Google, which began operations in China only in 2006, has done relatively well in the face of Baidu’s dominance, but many observers believed it had no chance of winning the market anytime soon. Indeed, Google’s share of the Chinese market has recently been declining—from 19 percent in the second quarter last year to 17 percent in the third quarter. These numbers have prompted some skepticism about Google’s intentions—the censorship argument is a convenient way to leave a market that Google was losing anyway, critics say.

But that argument seems specious. Even a small share of a market as big as China’s is still big money. JPMorgan estimates that Google will make about $600 million in China in 2010, and that an outright departure from the country “could potentially have a far-reaching impact on the company’s overall long-term growth rate.” This makes sense—China’s market for online ads is growing much faster than other markets Google serves, so despite being in second place, Google stands to make billions there over the long run. How can it justify sacrificing all that cash?

This brings us back to Google’s dreamy optimism. Remember that Google believes that the Internet is essentially unstoppable and that the open exchange of information can free us from terrible things. In its blog post explaining its new approach to China, the company said it would be ready to shut down if authorities didn’t let it provide uncensored results. But as James Fallows has documented, is not the only way that people in China can get to Google. China’s firewall is easy to breach. Through proxy servers and cheap “virtual private networks,” many people in China can access just about any site in the world—including, where they find uncensored results. In other words, rather than doing business in China from within the country, perhaps Google will now commit to doing business in China from the outside. As one Chinese tweeter put it, it can shift from the business of censorship to the business of anti-censorship.

This strategy might play into Google’s strengths. The company has always prided itself on the quality of its search engine, and it won the search business in the United States because for many years its results were obviously better than any of its competitors’. By censoring itself in China, Google limited its own best feature; now, free from censorship, it can position itself to Chinese Web surfers as the one true search engine, the place to go if you want the real story.

Of course, it’s an open question whether Google would be able to get that message through, especially if the authorities respond to its insolence by working harder to block out Google sites. But I’ll bet Google doubts that China’s censorship can last forever—and perhaps by working from the outside, rather than the inside, they can hasten its demise. John Gilmore, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, once famously said that the Internet “interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Google is betting that happens in China—and that when the Chinese eventually free themselves from the yoke of online repression, they’ll land on Google’s shores.

Become a fan of Farhad Manjoo on Facebook.

Slate and the New America Foundation will host a talk about China, Google, and Internet freedom on Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C. Click here for details.