Google's shifting moral ground

Google's shifting moral ground

Summary: Google's decision to censor results for its China search site has the blogosphere and beyond buzzing. Google's officials justified the decision in saying the getting access to the restricted, limited content is better than nothing.


googlechina_1.jpgGoogle's decision to censor results for its China search site has the blogosphere and beyond buzzing. Google's officials justified the decision in saying the getting access to the restricted, limited content is better than nothing. Bambi Francisco of MarketWatch attributes Google's decision to bend to China's will--and violate its do no evil policy--to the money machine:

As for me, I can't imagine that limited information is better than no information. The consequences are mind boggling. Google might be complicit in leaving out the facts that make up history. Then what happens when China rules the world? History will change as we know it. A clever friend once said to me: "If China ruled the world, history as we know it today would be rewritten from an Asian perspective."

Maybe China's riches are worth it. I don't think so. But when you've tasted billions -- like Brin and Page -- I guess you can hire a boatload of attorneys to justify any choices you make.

Bottom line: Google would rather compete Baidu and other search portals trying to claim the 100 million and growing number of Internet users in China than stand on the higher moral ground it set up for itself. According to Sun Tzu's Art of War, "The consummate leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success."

The moral ground in the global economic environment is shifting under Google's feet, but shareholders aren't going to complain. What goes on in China, stays in China. To Google's credit, it is foregoing its email and blogging services, which would risk exposing personal data to Chinese authorities, which is ironic considering Google's rejection of the DOJ's subpeona for search logs. See also Phil Lenssen.

Topic: China

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • "China would re-write history"

    Oh, and the United States doesn't? Ever hear the phrase "the victors write the history"? If Germany had won World War II, we would be speaking German, and learning about how bad the Americans were (and I wouldn't be here typing this message now). It is unfair to pretend that China is much different in the way it would present history.
    While yes, China is horrible in its censorship, it is by no means the only country to do so. How often are the horrors of the Japanese Internment camps brought up in classrooms? How deeply is slavery really discussed? All I'm saying is that even though the US does a fairly even-handed job, there are still some issues that are just not talked about, and are shamed for being brought up.
    • Shame and government enforcement are quite different

      US governments fund the history they present in the schools but they don't ban books, close newspapers, or jail authors. For those interested in the topics, articles and books are available on all the subjects you would like for people to talk about. I'm sorry if all of us aren't interested in your pet peeves but a lot of people have been messed over by different groups of people. We'll never do anything productive if we spend all of our time talking about all of it. However, you remain free to link evil that represents a clear and present danger to specific events that are already in the past.
    • Re-Writing History

      Go to just about any library in the US and you will find books describing the Japanese Internment camps, slavery, etc. These subjects may not be stressed in public schools but the INFORMATION is available. In larger libraries, you will find books supporting Hitler's actions and various views on many subjects.

      Books critical of President Bush or government policies regularly make the NY Times Best Seller List. How many books do you think you will in China that are critical of their Leaders or Policies?

      Google is throwing away its principles to make money.
      • The Chinese Attitude

        after living in China for 18 months I can tell you that the Chinese think they invented everything. Currently, they are rewriting Marxian ideology to fit with the current capitalistic environment.

        the CCP would rewrite history according to the Chinese if they 'ruled the world.'
  • Larry Page = Gordon Gecko (deja vu?)

    I am almost tired of beating the drum on this one, I must have posted about it a dozen times in the last few months.

    Maybe if tech reporters weren't such suckers for slick looking tech, they would have seen this a year ago. I certainly did. This happens to EVERY major company. When I worked for [fill in the name of a top-five Big Pharma company] they would always talk about how many lives they had saved. The reality was, if a profit margin was not involved, they would not have done it. Look at TB research. Bill & Melinda Gates are funding it out of their pockets, because no drug company wants to research a drug that primarily inflicts poor people living in countries with governments too poor to afford medications, despite the fact that TB kills about as many people as AIDS does.

    Why is it news that Google is doing the same? I bet I can think of a few reasons:

    * Google fanboys created by their slick using interfaces and the "magic" of an API that they actually start beleiving that Google is savior of tech.

    * Google fanboys who consider Google to be the anti-Microsoft (despite the fact that until the last year, the only part of Microsoft that competed with Google in any form was the MSN part of Microsoft, and even now, Google barely competes with Microsoft), and therefore is always awesome. These are the same suckers who think that RedHat is a perfect company or that SuSE can never be good, now that Novell owns it (well, that's probably true, but mostly because Novell is an incompetant company in general).

    * Tech writers who lavish praise on everything Google does, despite the fact that most of their "innovations" are typically a UI improvement above on top of a proven market winner, like Maps. I'm not sure who are worse, the tech writers, because they have influence and I expect them to have critical thinking and analysis skills, or the fanboys for their rabid idolation of Google.

    * FOSS folks who think that Google is a shining example of FOSS principles because they publish open APIs. Guess what? Microsoft publishes APIs as well. Last I checked, Google hasn't released source code for a single one of their products. I don't see why FOSS folks think Google is a good example of their principles at work, except for the "fact" that they are the anti-Microsoft.


    Google is not a good company. "Do no evil" has been pure bunk since they went public, if not earlier. All Page et al care about is stock price. Indeed, now that they are a public company, their only role, as definied by their legal and fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, is to INCREASE SHAREHOLDER VALUE. This is what a public company does. If you don't like it, tough. Stop expecting a public company to do a single thing which doesn't increase shareholder value. Anything less than that, and their shareholders may sue them or kick them out for failure to meet fiduciary responsibility. It is their job, as legally defined by their contract, to increase profits as long as their behavior is within the law. Look at Microsoft. They used to be a nifty little company doing intresting things (even if they were mostly "me too" items, then again, so are Google's projects). Yet despite being in violations of many laws, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer still run the company. Why? BECAUSE THEY INCREASE SHAREHOLDER VALUE.

    You want people who work for the greater good, don't go worshipping a public company. Join a church, write some open source code, volunteer at a soup kitchen, play with your kids in the backyard. Don't look to a public company for morality. What is legal is not necessarily right, and what is right is not necessarily legal.

    "One cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is.'" - David Hume

    Justin James
    • excellent article and while at it - Google fact probably not remembered

      the article that came up sometime back that about the internal decisions of the top management of Google when they were going IPO. Apparently the decisions taken by the management was to their benefit at the expense of the stock holders (costing stock holders billions).
    • Good post, but the point is

      J.Ja, great post as usual. I'm not disagreeing with you at all but I'm only trying to give you an explanation. The reason it's news is because it's hypocrisy. This is kind of like when a reverend who preaches morality on Sunday morning but cheats on his wife on Sunday night.
    • Google good or evil

      So far, I've seen nothing that signals Google as either good or evil. For starters, they haven't done anything the likes of Enron. Nor have they done anything that will likely save the world.

      Google is another company. All companies are in the same business ... making money for the owners of the company. Google is no different.

      Those of you who wish to bash corporate America for this need to move to China. Those of you who wish to praise corporate America as being some type of hero that is above the money need to open your eyes.

      Google isn't good. Google isn't evil. Google is just Google.
    • Speaking of responsibility to shareholders... is a cogent argument that criticizing publicly held companies' behaviors is a way of informing the directors of the risk which their behavior creates vis-a-vis their responsibility to shareholders. How, you ask? Because actions taken to increase revenue in one sector may have the opposite effect in others. When the press illustrates the posssible risk of following a policy anthametic to the general public,they are helping the management identify to the board an unconsidered risk variable.
  • Money or morals

    For a company that said do no evil, they're doing a pretty good imitation of evil. For a company that touts hybrid vehicles, a Leer jet won't do but a jumbo 767 will. Sure they're not alone in their decision to play along in China, but the other companies never had the motto "do no evil".
    • Agreed

      If you mean to be virtuous, do it quietly, and then wait for other people to notice. Don't go about announcing it to the world.

      On the other hand both the founders of Google were young, naive and inexperienced in business, there is a lot of money involved and people can easily get led astray (this is only to explain and not to excuse however).
    • This has nothing to do with morals

      As Americans, we (meaning Google and I and any other like minded Americans) have strong feelings about the right to privacy and a strong understanding that our government has no right to censor us. Google is being entirely consistent when they fight the government's efforts to get data that they do not believe should be turned over.

      As for China, the problem is not unique. Many Americans seem to forget that it's a sovereign nation and is not bound by US laws. There was no expectation in the first place that its citizens had a right to a free press or a world without government censorship. They don't. It would be preferable if they did, but it would be equally absurd to say that their government is denying them their right to it. They don't have that right to begin with. Nobody is violating their constitution or going against the fundamental principles of their country.

      It amazes me how Americans go to other countries are are shocked at how their "rights" are violated. They might get arrested and even put to death for drugs, or incarcerated for speaking out against a government. What about their constitutional rights? The US constitution applies in the US. It does not tell other governments what to do.

      What Google is doing is a strategic business decision. They decided rightfully that the people of China are better off getting what their government allows than getting nothing at all. It's not Google's decision how to run China.
      • Not true at all..

        Google is fighting the court because they do not want to reveal how they index web pages, nothing more...
      • Who grants "rights"?

        I guess it is all in how you believe "rights" are granted.

        For example, if gov't grants rights to its citizens, then your argument is correct. Chinese citizens rights, therefore, are not being abused.

        Many people believe there are a set of basic rights that everyone has regardless of human input. They believe we are governed by a higher moral set which is immutable no matter the where or the when. Many tend to believe the freedom to speak as you will (without being defamatory) is one of these immutable morals. Therefore, following this argument, the Chinese rights are being trodden upon.

        The problem with the first argument is highlighted by a government ruled by cruel and inhumane people such as Hitler. His policies caused the massacre of many, many Jews. If gov't is the sole arbitrator of "rights" then Hitler was well within his rights to kill the Jews. They were, after all, citizens of Germany. I doubt many people would agree with such a conclusion, though.

        The problem with the second argument is that a higher morality set can never truly be defined.
        • Who grants rights?

          "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--"

          Google apparently does not believe this applies to their operation.
      • Following that logic...

        ... Google should show search results that picture women treated as 2nd class citizens and fully veiled in Muslim countries? In Iran, it should show only results indicating that the Holocaust was a sham invented by Jews?
        • Good one!

      • Your ignorance is showing

        The Chinese people do have a constitutional right to freedoms.

        "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration."
        • Sort of...

          Although I agree with you, the Chinese also have provisions such as:

          Article 51 - "Citizens of the People's Republic of China, in exercising their freedoms and rights, may not infringe upon the interests of the state, of society or of the collective, or upon the lawful freedoms and rights of other citizens."

          So, the protection of their freedoms and rights is hung on a fragile thread which can be broken at the mere whims of the State.
  • Google and China

    In the end, money nearly always trumps morals. Google sorely disappoints me.