U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees global human rights, provided just one example of this backfiring in a January 25 press statement. “It is astounding that Google, whose corporate philosophy is ‘Don’t be evil’ would enable evil by cooperating with China’s censorship policies just to make a buck,” he said.
Still, Google has not been a stranger to controversy in the past. Its technical and strategic decisions have been scrutinized and criticized by both users and Internet cognoscenti for almost as long as it’s been a major player in the search business.
At times, for instance, Google has been blasted for placing permanent “cookies” on users’ computers in order to personalize some services; for offering a reverse-lookup phone directory that can be used to find a person’s address from his or her phone number; for filtering out too much or too little pornographic content with its “SafeSearch” feature; for hurting small companies by ranking search results according to popularity and frequently altering the way it calculates these rankings; for scanning and digitally indexing copyrighted library books without asking the permission of their authors or publishers; and for selling shares in its initial public offering through a complicated auction system that only big investors had the wherewithal to figure out.
But censoring its own services for consumption in China may be Google’s most unpopular decision to date. The company’s official justification for limiting its range of services as it moves into China – a potentially highly lucrative market, and one of the few where Google’s search engine does not yet dominate – are the same as those of many other information technology companies in China: that multinational corporations must obey the laws of the countries where they do business, and that some level of access to Western information and technology is, in the long run, more conducive to democracy and free speech than none.
(ADDENDUM, Jan. 30, 2006, 3:25 pm EST: As of this moment, a Business Week Online poll launched last week shows that 46.8 percent of 1,407 respondents think Google made a “bad move” and is “putting profit before principle,” while 46.5 percent say Google is right and that it “needs to play by China’s rules first. Reforms and Western-style transparency will follow.” - WR)
Yet Google’s commitment to its position seems half-hearted at best. By going into China, it’s in effect condoning similar actions by some of the same companies, such as Microsoft, to which the “don’t be evil” motto implicitly refers. And by expressing their misgivings about the Chinese venture in public, company officials seem to have opened themselves up to charges of hypocrisy.