by CIO Staff

China Censorship: Google and Other Scoundrels

Jan 30, 20066 mins

by Constantine von Hoffman

On NPR the other day, I was listening to some or the other executive at Ford explain about how his company had come to have to lay off tens of thousands of workers, lose more than a billion dollars and no longer have the No. 1 selling car in the US. One of his reasons: No one thought the price of gas would go up to $2.50-$3 a gallon. While the NPR interviewer (motto: We Make Larry King Look Tough) let this statement sail by with nary a comment, I quite literally sputtered at the radio. There are only two possible explanations for this statement. One is that the people running Ford are so stupid that they could not foresee the fact that commodity prices fluctuate and that yes, the Middle East is indeed a volatile part of the world. Two is that they’re lying and didn’t feel it would be politic to say, “Look our profit margins on these SUVs were so huge that we figured it we should make all we could right now and never mind what comes next. Hey, y’all we’re dumb enough to buy them …” It is never a good thing when the most you can hope for is that you are being lied to.

What does all this have to do with Google, you ask? For what it’s worth, when justifying their decision to get in bed with the Chinese government they just came out and said: It’s all about the money. The market is too huge for us to ignore.

They have even stopped claiming not to censor search results. Now their web page reads

It is Google’s policy not to censor search results. However, in response to local laws, regulations, or policies, we may do so.

Let us have then a big cheer for honesty! And why shouldn’t they tell the truth?The fact of the matter is, there is no real practical reason for them not to go along with China’s requirements. No company – be it internet/tech giants like Yahoo! or Microsoft or all the bazillions of firms that do their manufacturing there – have gotten into trouble with the consumers here for sucking up to Beijing, just as no company (speaking of Ford) got into any real trouble for doing business with the Nazis.

Over at the BBC, Bill Thompson argues that Google could actually have gotten into legal trouble if it had not given in to the Chinese demands for censorship. He says that it could have been seen as a betrayal of fiduciary responsibility:

Even if the primary motivation for going into China is that it makes commercial sense for the company – as indeed it must do, since US law is quite harsh on boards that take actions which could damage shareholder value – it also makes political sense.

Dude, first point – no one gets into fiduciary trouble when the stock is going for more than $300 a share. While it is always possible that the stock might tank, it is going to be a long time before the decision to do business in China has an impact on it either way. Thompson’s second point, which has also been made by such disinterested types as Bill Gates and Google’s founders, is that by increasing the flow of information into China the search engine will actually be helping — not harming — freedom in the Middle Kingdom. And while there is some slight merit to this, it’s not like the Chinese were being underserved by search engines. The aforementioned Yahoo! and MSN and many others are there.

Wouldn’t a moral stance taken by the US’s hottest internet company have done more good? Wouldn’t it have had a bigger impact if Google had said, “We can’t do business according to the standards of a government that is against everything we allegedly stand for.” News of that certainly would have gotten through to the Chinese, thereby heartening and reassuring people trying to reform the government. It might have galvanized public opinion outside of China and kept the issue front-and-center for a while, as opposed to the 15 minutes of huffing and puffing it will now get from the press and Congress – where our captains of internet/tech industry are being summoned for a ritualistic wrist slapping. A public decision by Google not to take this particular lesson in Chinese would have given a official imprimatur to the idea that being a good corporate citizen sometimes means doing things for the good of the society and not for the company.

But what is the point of a moral stand anyway? Who remembers that William Jennings Bryant resigned as secretary of state over President Wilson’s decision to get involved in World War I. Who remembers that Eliot Richardson resigned rather than follow Nixon’s orders to fire the special investigator into Watergate? Who even remembers James Robertson? He is forgotten already despite the fact that last month he “resigned from the court that oversees government surveillance in intelligence cases in protest of President Bush’s secret authorization of a domestic spying program.” Where was the profit for any of them?

So why do the right thing at all? For the same reason that you argue with the umpires in baseball: What else can you do? The claim of fiduciary responsibility is merely an attempt to cloak a total lack of moral responsibility on the part of Google and other companies. This lends more credence to the argument that corporations should not have equal standing as actual people in the eyes of the law. Companies are compelled to seek the best return on their investment, society must be compelled to seek more.

Oh, and because this is supposedly a humor blog allow me to add something I found on Business Wire today under the headline Google Toolbar Gets Personal: “Google Inc. today announced the latest version of Google Toolbar … . the new beta versions of Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer are open and customizable, with new features that enable users to customize their search experience and share information with friends.” That’s customizable as in customized to someone else’s needs. Doubtless your search experience will also be shared with more than just your friends.

And the irony, it flowed like …

To paraphrase Elvis Costello: I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused … no, wait, still disgusted. For those of you seeking more genuinely humorous fare, allow me to direct you to my other blog, Collateral Damage, where today I try to discern whether or not GE’s new CMO is now or ever has been a Muppet. More real humor on Wednesday, as I’m off tomorrow.