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Google in China - Morality or Reality?

David Silversmith
David Silversmith

Google, which entered China in early 2006, said that it recently uncovered a "highly sophisticated and targeted" hack into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. The investigation uncovered a larger pattern in which Google reports that the accounts of dozens of activists have been "routinely" accessed by third parties, either through malware or phishing scams.

"These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered -- combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web -- have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China," David Drummond, Google's senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post. Drummond added that the company is "no longer willing to continue censoring our results on," and will hold discussions with the Chinese government on possible ways that it could run an unfiltered search engine. "We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China," he said.

For four years, Google complied with the Chinese government’s demands that they censor search results. It did this in the hope of becoming the number one search engine in China, a goal it failed to achieve.  Google’s former head of China Kai-fu Lee in Beijing last October has stated that one reason he left Google was that it was clear the company was never going to substantially increase its market share or beat Baidu.

Thus this announcement has sparked discussion as to why Google made this decision. Is Google taking a stand, or is it tired of failing to catch up with Baidu - the leading search engine in China. 

The Google supporting view was best summarized by Robert Scoble who has congratulated Google and noted “Google has EVERY INCENTIVE to kiss Chinese ass” which is why he is impressed by Google's actions.

An opposing Google is evil view comes from Sarah Lacy who has written “Google’s China Stance: More about Business than Thwarting Evil“. She asks “Does anyone really think Google would be doing this if it had top market share in the country?"  She theorizes that Google has decided that doing business in China isn’t worth it and is turning what would be a negative into a marketing positive for its business in the rest of the world.  The Economist seems to be siding with Sarah, with their article on ‘Google errs.‘

Whether Google is taking the moral high ground or hiding their business failures behind a moral front, the fact remains that they are standing up to the Chinese government.  What happens next will be an exciting battle of government control versus a big multinational business.  Who will back down first?

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