Why no-one should care that Google censored itself in China

Today, 14 February 2006, is being touted as the day people are to “break-up” with Google (also here). They’re to sever their relationship, their ties, their love for what is still the most dominant search engine on the internet. It might be losing its top place due to a drop in its relevance (word to Google’s engineers: you guys gotta tighten that baby up — MSN is beginning to beat you out), but its popularity has never been stronger.

Which is part of the reason why people are trying to punish Google for censoring itself in China. It’s a backlash against the Big G to try and remind them of their “do no evil” mantra.

It’s about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.

In recorded history, the actions of a group of people have instigated (either directly or as an end result of continued actions) a change in behaviour of an entity, be it the church, a government, or a company. The belief (no matter how ill-thought) is that by removing the traffic from Google’s engines, people will somehow force Google into removing the censorship in China, allowing the poor, huddled masses there to see all the material currently forbidden by the Chinese government.

The problem isn’t that Google is censoring — it’s that people believe that Google’s moral direction somehow overrides the legality of operating in another country.

Yes, Google is an American company. It follows all the laws and guidelines set within the United States of America. What most people seem to forget is that just because a company is based there doesn’t mean that it can behave the same way in every other country on the planet.

The traditional Corporation (we’ll ignore that the internet exists for a moment) starts in Country A, defined by and operating under the laws that govern that nation. When the Corporation wants to do business in Country B, it can either do so across borders (when it is convenient and relatively painless), or it opens a subsidiary to acclimatize to the different conditions. Every country has a specific set of laws that are almost invariably different (not necessarily hostile towards) to the laws in the originating country. The subsidiary allows the Corporation to function internally with minimal changes, and having the subsidiary deal with the legal specifics.

Even between the United States and Canada, there are legal differences. Although almost economically transparent to one another, there are sufficient differences to require significant treaties to allow the exchange of goods and services (witness the US/Canada Auto Pact or NAFTA). The laws that companies operate within are also different, which leads to having specific subsidiaries in Canada. Even companies like Dell and Microsoft — and yes, even Google — have Canadian-specific offices to handle Canadian-specific legal requirements.

When Google wants to do business directly within a country, it needs to open an office. This is particularly important when that country is viewed as being a strong source of revenue. (Yes, folks, this is all due to money. “Do no evil” or not, money is the root of all evil and money rules everything.) Such is the case with China — it is the next great revenue source for the search engines. Google just happened to be the first to knock on the door.

China has very specific laws when it comes to information. Such is the reality of living within the confines of a oligarchy-ruled “communist” nation. You control the masses (and lest we forget that China has over 1.6 billion people) by controlling information. China allows a great deal of information through its borders (having been there, I’ve seen what is allowed) and offers its people a great deal of freedom.

But to ensure that its society remains harmonious, there are aspects that are not allowed. Anything to do with democracy, freedom of speech, or anything that might incite revolt against the ruling party is viewed to be particularly dangerous. China has a history of particularly violent civil wars — even if the ruling party weren’t trying to save their collective butts, it would be a wise policy to allow gradual change rather than end up with an internal conflict on the order of World War I.

This isn’t about China’s policies — this is about others having to recognize that they exist. Google has, much to the chagrin of others. Google has done what a lot of people now view as a violation of Google’s moral perogative: censored itself. It has done “evil”.

There is an interesting allegory to this. There once was a garden. And in this garden grew a tree. The inhabitants of this garden were told never to eat from the tree. Yet they were inticed by a serpent — a representation of evil — to ignore what they were told, and eat the delicious fruit, and ultimately learned the horrible truth.

The story of Adam and Eve is often used as a prime example of evil’s profits. And yet, if we consider Google to be the tree, for it does contain all the collected knowledge … who is the snake? It’s not China, for they want that knowledge to remain in the tree, away from those who would eat the tree’s fruit. Eating that apple is considered evil.

I’m sure that’s going to stir a few objections — how dare I consider the allegory to be even remotely equivalent to a company that chooses to side with an “evil” country! Like many things, the concept of “evil” is highly subjective. We westerners look down on other nations that do not provide the same notions of freedom. We do not see the same societal constructs that have existed elsewhere for centuries. We consider our enlightenment to be the only true way.

If the recent weeks of Muhammad cartoons have not yet taught westerners that absolute belief in our own superiority is a supreme fallacy, I don’t know what will.

Every company, no matter what medium it exists in or what product or service it offers, must comply with the local laws of the country in which it wishes to do business. For Google to operate in China means it has to contend with the laws that govern China — that means removing content from their service that are in violation of China’s information ban. Regardless of how we view China’s policies, they are what will guide and rule whatever company cares to hang a shingle inside their borders.

Lest we forget, though, it’s not just China. Microsoft got slapped by the EU for Windows Media Player. Last time I checked, I didn’t hear the west complaining about that. In fact, we were encouraging the EU to fine Microsoft and force changes. This was just the EU enforcing the laws they have adopted, for better or for worse.

And it’s not to say that Google has become wimpy, either. Remember when the White House demanded records on pornography searches on their indexes? Google refused to hand them over. We lauded them for that. But it wasn’t because they knew they’d win the hearts of users. It was their policy not to hand over information that was in potential violation of the law. “Do no evil” includes abiding by the laws they operate under.

Google won’t be the only one. Yahoo’s following Google to China. And they are also encountering the laws that have given Google so much trouble. The word “fight” has shown up, but it’s not a fight — it’s an adaptation. Yahoo, like Google, will need to consider (and probably will end up) censoring its content if it wants to gain the favour needed to earn money behind the Great Wall. And if China asks for information on one of its users, Yahoo will comply.

So perhaps its time for everyone to pull their highly enlightened heads out of the sand and look around. The world doesn’t end at North America’s borders. Things are different out there, and companies have to play by different rules if they wish to earn revenue in other nations. And it doesn’t matter what moral direction that company says it will follow.

The idea here is to pressure China to change its policies by forcing companies to bring in western ideals. This is not a realisitic perspective. Companies will not force changes in an economy the size of China’s. It’s not feasible. Companies are too small, too insignficiant. And they know it. Only governments can inflict changes like the ones activists want to see. They want human rights brought in like those in the west. They want Tibet freed. Google can’t do that. Yahoo can’t do that.

You want that kind of change? Get your government to change. They’re the ones who can influence change through trade sanctions, through changes in diplomatic behaviour. Only when political pressure is enacted will it be possible for change to take place. And China’s considerable economy is tough to overcome.

Don’t punish Google (or Yahoo, for that matter) for complying with the laws of another country. Talk to your elected official. Lodge your complaints. Make your voice heard by your government. Only through them will the changes you want to see take place.

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