Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Goodbye Google in China?

Google may shut down its office and service in China. (New York Times Article)

"Google" has gone from search engine to part of our everyday vocabulary. I would even go so far as to say that the term "google" has replaced more traditional phrases such as "searched for online" and "looked up online." How many times have you said, "What is that? I'll have to google it when I get home," or "Oh, I know all about that; I googled it the other day!" They have expanded from search engine to e-mail domain to blogger to online chatting to photo-sharing database to document sharing and more and have actually been successful in each of these endeavors. Anything that Google produces seems to have great expectations from the community, and people even seek out invitations for their invitation-only Beta programs. Google decided to expand their functions to Chinese-speakers by hiring Kai-Fu Lee, a previous Microsoft employee, who was credited for launching Google.cn in January 2006. The launch of Google.cn was a compromise between the Google and the Chinese government for a more open, but still censored internet and overall access to information. At the time, Google believed the pros to outweigh the cons. (Official Google Blog)

It seems that signs of trouble for Google.cn existed long before the Chinese attack on Google aimed at dissidents that was highlighted in the New York Times today (see first link in this entry). For example, Head of China's Operations Lee left the company back in September 2009 (New York Times Lee Leaves Article). Although his departure from Google was not given a specific reason, it seems likely that he was aware of Google.cn's instability and lack of success in catching up with the Chinese-originated search engine Baidu (Wikipedia Article on Baidu). Perhaps Lee left because he knew that Google would eventually challenge the censorship the Chinese government mandates or perhaps Google is now choosing to challenge the Chinese government because of the lack of Lee's leadership. Then again, there may be no correlation between Lee's departure and the current situation. Regardless, China's inhabitants find themselves in risk of losing access to one of the most popular, if not powerful, web tools and search engines in the world.

All this background information then leads to the core question of this entry: what should Google do? Here are some of the facts:
  • Google knew that they would have to censor their services when they first launched Google.cn.. They decided the pros outweighed the cons, and thus went ahead with the launch.
  • Baidu seems to be the only comparable search engine for China's inhabitants, and is in fact much more successful. It has, however, also been criticized for its censoring by the Chinese government and misuse for targeting dissidents.
  • The decision to question Google's presence in China came from the US offices "without the knowledge or involvement of [their] employees in China"
  • Human rights advocates that use gmail have lost their privacy from unauthorized access into their accounts, but many other email domains have also suffered the same attacks.
Given that Google knew they would have to censor their services before they even launched Google.cn, why are they now challenging the U.S. government? I can see several plausible reasons:
  1. Google has not been as successful as they would have liked; they are, for example, still lagging behind Baidu. With the original leader in launching Google.cn gone and a new leadership in place, it is a good time for Google.cn to push their limits and reevaluate the original plans.
  2. Google has become a powerful web presence in the world. They do not need to be in China, and thus are able to threaten China because they do not feel they have much to lose.
  3. Google has become a powerful web presence and thus they feel there is no way China will let them leave China. Google is bluffing and is confident that China will not call their bluff (or they do not think they have much to lose even if China does call their bluff).
  4. Google is more comfortable with the other options now available to China's inhabitants, and do not feel that their presence is necessary. Whereas, before, Google felt their potential contribution outweighed their lack of freedom from having to censor, they now feel China's inhabitants have other viable options and do not need Google.
  5. Google thought they would be ok with censoring, but when they actually had to do it and then saw their gmail services being used to hurt human rights advocates, they started to feel guilty.
  6. They changed their minds.
These are, of course, not all the possible options, but merely some that crossed my mind right off bat. In my next entry, I will ponder the same question Google must have asked in 2006 and is now asking again in 2010: "to censor but still increase access to knowledge or to stick to morals and not censor but decrease China's inhabitants access to information."


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