Google has begun the withdrawal of services from China. A bad time for the Chinese citizens, academics and the students who use the search engine. A bad time too for the company that will lose influence in the world’s fastest growing major economy. But for Microsoft, the times couldn’t be better.
Google have always given the impression that money isn’t their motive. The young idealistic founders insist that they are focused more towards improving the user experience of the internet, democratizing the web and sticking to their famous slogan “Don’t be evil”.
So now the non-suit wearing San Francisco based media giant has had to make good on its ethos and stop operating a censored service in China. This is a move that seems totally in line with the history of the web. Google are sharing the “nerd norms” of the enthusiastic programmers and engineers who freely shared information in the 60’s and 70’s to develop the internet. Johnny Ryan and Stefan Halper have suggested that this clash between China and Google indicates that the “information-technology sector may be moving beyond an amoral, bottom-line form of capitalism towards something more principled.”
However, these principles weren’t so strongly felt in 2006, when Google had initially agreed to stay in China under censure, declaring it was in for the “long haul” of creating a productive presence in the country. They state on their blog that “Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population, however, does so far more severely.” But now they have decided to depart; after four years! The reasons for this departure are unclear.
The most likely reason is because of the cyber attacks against Google’s infrastructure and the attacks against human rights activists Gmail accounts. As Danny Sullivan states on searchengineland.com: “An attack on ideas — that’s what the Chinese censorship was — that was tolerable. But an attack on Google’s own property? We’re outta here”
Whatever the reasons and motivations behind the move, the one thing we can be sure of is that it will all be kept secret. Google love their secrecy. When talking of strategy, Google co-founder Larry Page states “I would rather have people think we’re confused than let our competitors know what we’re going to do.”
But if we believe the hype, and Google are making a moral stand for freedom of speech, then I still cannot see what the outcome of this move would be. It’s great that the idealistic young entrepreneurs are taking a stand against internet censorship. But what will this achieve? It is reinvigorating the image of Google as a liberal media giant; it is also helping the inhabitants of China become more aware that the web is restricted; it is highlighting the moral issues the internet is facing. But how long will the effects of this statement last? After the media are bored of this story, and people switch their attention, Google will be left with less power to change China.
And now Microsoft have stepped in. A company rooted in profit. A company who used unethical business tactics to monopolise desktop computing and are a danger to internet freedom and free software (read more here). According to the Wall Street Journal they have already aggressively snapped up Chinese members of Google’s staff following the initial threat of withdrawal. And it is the perfect opportunity for Microsoft, who have just spent $100 million on marketing rival search engine Bing.com.
I don’t buy into Google as a moral crusader, and I agree that if business had been better in China then they would have stayed. But I would prefer it if Google had a stronger stake in China than Microsoft. Google leaving China seems arrogant, ignorant, irresponsible and plain stupid. Whilst they go about bashing Microsoft in a “holier than thou” public relations campaign all they have really done is responded to censorship with further censorship.
I strongly oppose China’s censorship of the internet. But it is idiotic for a company that has been around for little over ten years to wage war with a superpower as mighty as China. I fear the consequences will be dire…