Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Doing no evil in China (except for censorship)

Sorry for posting 2 stories about Google in my 2 posts I've done so far. I promise my 3rd will be about something else entirely.

I really wanted to flesh out the Google-may-be-evil-after-all angle of my last piece by linking a few stories about Google's collaboration with France's and Germany's governments to remove "Nazi paraphernalia" from the search results, but I couldn't find them in the time I had to write the post. They've made it easy for me to find a story by agreeing to do the same sort of filtering in China to comply with Chinese speech restrictions.

The article points out that "Google is cooperating with China's government at the same time it is battling the U.S. government over a subpoena seeking a breakdown of one week's worth of search requests _ a list that would cover millions of terms," but I really think that's an apples to oranges comparison. One is regarding limiting access to results while the other is regarding information they've already collected. Trying to twist this into Google likes China but doesn't like the US is pretty silly given the context.

Now it's important to note that if I were in Google's position, I'd do exactly the same thing. I'd have no problem being the bad guy to get the massive market share possible by having access to Chinese Internet users. However, I'd think that Google's stance of doing no evil would prevent them from being the bad guys here. I guess being evil doesn't matter when marketshare is at stake.

The Chinese Google site should be live today or tomorrow some time at I'll check it out when I get a chance. I'd encourage you to do the same. I honsetly don't know if we'll get the same results searching outside of China as the Chinese get searching inside of China. They may not filter our results since they can pretty easily tell which country we're searching from.


Dante said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dante said...

I had written that I couldn'e see any evidence of Google censoring things from a cursory look at the engine but then someone brought this to my attention. Contrast the results for "tiananmen Square" between the .cn and .com Google sites:

Or you can always go to each search engine site anf type in "tiananmen Square" yourself.

So much for letting the Chinese know when a site will be censored.

S.A.W.B. said...

just to test, i ran tiananmen square protests through the old engine. it came up with some results with people writing about their memories of the protests, but not much else. For kicks, i ran 'falun gong' through the old interweb looky-loo. here's the results page for the site - Chinese Google
and here's the regular google results US Google

Something of a difference there. I'm not sure if this will hurt Google in the long run, by kowtowing to whatever government rules are thrown at them just so they can gain marketshare, but in the short term, it seems just sort of spineless.

Dante said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dante said...

I hate that they won't let you edit your post if you made a mistake on it. All these deleted comments don't look good on a story condemning Google for filtering Chinese Internet search results. Here's what I meant to write:

It seems more than "spineless." It seems "evil."

And to be fair, I ran SAWB's result through Babel Fish and it does tell us at the bottom of the page "According to the local law laws and regulations and the policy, the part searches the result not to demonstrate." (Hey, it's the best a computer can do translating.) So I was wrong earlier and they are letting them know that something is being censored but they're not letting them know exactly how much is being censored or how that is affecting the results.

patsbrother said...

I just have time to mention the obvious: Americans have a right to free speech and, at least theoretically, have a right to privacy. The Chinese, I assume, have neither.

If the Chinese do not have a right to privacy or to free speech, how then does Google act evil in its interactions with the Chinese government when by doing so Google does not infringe upon the rights of Chinese citizens?

Unless you believe Google should protect the nonrights of Chinese citizens by treating them as though they were Americans?

Our nation resists joining an international court of law (a position with which I concur, though I will admit, ignorant of relevent information). Should we insist an overseas incarnation of an American corporation, which does not now physically export anything back to American soil, that in its dealings with citizens of a foreign nation it behave as though interacting with Americans? Especially when we are not sure how American rights apply to that interaction in America, even if that violates the law in that foreign nation? Doesn't that sound like we are trying to subject a foreign entity to the rule of American law at the same time we are resisting allowing Americans to come under the rule of an international and uniquely foreign law?

Personally, I would prefer free speech and a right to privacy in China.

Personally, I would prefer Google to work within the framework of American law to cooperate with the government to stop the online targeting of children and the purveyors of kiddie porn.

However, I am not goint to sit in judgment over Google and call it evil just because it is at once attempted to work within the framework of the law, both domestic and foreign, and to protect the rights of individuals where they believe they may have a duty to do so.

Dante said...

"If the Chinese do not have a right to privacy or to free speech, how then does Google act evil in its interactions with the Chinese government when by doing so Google does not infringe upon the rights of Chinese citizens?"

Because the PRC is being evil by denying it's citizens such simple freedoms. Google is playing right into the PRC's hands by meeting their demands. By association, that makes Google evil here.

"Evil" is a moral, not legal, consideration. Not to beat a dirty smelly 80 year old dead horse, but the Holocaust was quite evil even if it did have the unofficial support of the government. China's citizen do not have the basic freedom of speech but they should have it. All people should have it.

If Google's company motto were "Don't be illegal." I'd agree with patsbrother here. However, their company motto is "Don't be evil." Helping a nation deny its citizens of a basic human right is certainly evil, even if it does fit into the legal framework of that country.

ruby booth said...

here is a more comprehensive article about what one can and cannot access in China.

I do think it worth mentioning here that Google restricts access to some content in our country as well, when legally obligated to do so. They seem to have taken this at a lesser of two evils situation, which is sad, but that’s what they say.

patsbrother said...

As Americans, we enjoy more freedom than the vast majority of the world. What we see as basic comes from a nebulous standard that has evolved over 229 years of democracy. We do not have an unfettered freedom of speech, and we certainly do not have an unfettered freedom of privacy. Where, then, is the line drawn between what is a basic human right and what is a right we through our system of government have deemed important for us to retain? There is no guarantee of freedom of speech in Great Britain; a woman was incarcerated recently for announcing the government was acting illegally. Do subjects of the crown lack basic human rights? Whose standard do we use?

It appears what Chinese citizens lack is not freedom of speech (freedom to speak), but freedom of expression. Which, I reiterate, has its limits here as well.

I feel I also must add this is a far more general discussion than perhaps it needs to be. No one I know is about to claim that the full availability of an Internet search engine is a basic human right. That would, of course, be ridiculous. If Congress were to pass a law mandating that all search engines were to report certain activity to the government it would certainly be empowered to do that. As it hasn't, Google has to ask itself if the executive branch already has the authority to require the information.

Dante said...

I did use "speech" when I meant "expression." The two are so intwined in the US Constituion that I didn't think to differentiate them properly. That was my error. It still doesn't change that what Google is doing here is "evil," and that flys against their supposed company policy.

If you want to be less general, then let's be less general.

Is aiding the Chinese government in covering up the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protest evil?

Now that's a loaded question so I'm going to back off a little and explain how I got to it. Google, in its massive search archives has a considerable amount of information regarding the Tiananmen Square protest that the Chinese government does not want its citizens to see. In a cooperative effort with the Chinese government, Google has agreed not to display that information to Chinese citizens.

Maybe patsbrother is right and freedom of expression isn't a universal right. I'm not changing my opinion that it should be but for the sake of argument we'll not consider it "evil" to deny freedom of expression just for the sake of denying it. And I will heartily agree that there is no universal right to "the full availability of an Internet search engine."

However, the Chinese government did something very bad here. They want to cover it up. In exchange for being allowed access to the Chinese market, Google is willing to help the Chinese government cover it up by not showing Chinese citizens the wealth of information Google has on the subject. I'd consider that "evil" and I imagine most people would agree with me.

Now you might ask yourself, "What does it matter what the population in general thinks is evil?" "Don't be evil" is Google's company motto. It's a public blurb that is supposed to describe Google. Seeing that it's a blurb directed at the general public and there is no qualifier as to what constitutes "evil," one must assume that the definition of "evil" is dependant on what the general public sees as evil, since that is the only frame of reference they are given.

And to be honest, the only reason I'm picking on Google in this situation is because of their stated company policies. They are holding themselves to a higher standard than most other companies and they are failing to live up to that standard.

If Microsoft takes their search engine to China and filters things at the whim of the Chinese government, I'm ok with that. Microsoft doesn't pretend to be some touchy-feely goody-good company out to make the world a better place. They're a business and they're concerned with their bottom line. I can respect that. What I can't respect is some company claiming they're not like other companies and claiming that they're all for personal privacy and freedom of information and not being evil that goes and does the same thing. I guess what it comes down to is that I respect the wolf but I don't respect the lamb that looks like a lamb but acts an awful lot like a wolf.

And perhaps Ruby is right and this is a "lesser of two evils situation," but it's easy to see it that way when the "less evil" path is paved with gold.

And just for fun, here's the funniest blurb I've seen regarding this blurb. It's Google's new company motto:

Don't Be Evil*

*Void Where Prohibited

Patrick Armstrong said...

I thought Dante was heading down the Chomsky Highway until that last comment. *Whew*

But I'd reckon that 'evil' is really in the eye of the beholder. If you were really so concerned that you'd do no evil, you may never, ever do anything ever, with anyone except the spiritually pure.

Then only evil people would be able to compete in business anywhere.

"Good is going to triumph over evil just as soon as good learns to fight dirty." - Garth Ennis(?)

Sometimes you must work away from a goal to acheive a goal.

China does some crappy things, but are they evil? Is doing business with them evil? I guess Google doesn't think so.

patsbrother said...

Two thoughts and a parenthetical missive:

Though I cannot say whether in Google's case this is different, but a motto is not a blurb aimed at the general public. As Dante later hints, a motto is an inward concept, a guiding principle for an individual, an entity, or an institution. Whether Google uses its own motto for meretricious reasons, I cannot say.

(Oh, the words you learn in law school. You may want to look that last one up. It does not mean what you likely think it does. My utilization of it is unnecessary and largely inapposite: I just wanted the chance to actually use it.)

I wanted to point out, Dante, you meandered into the freedom of the press and the freedom of information in your attempt to circumvent the freedom of speech or expression. I will take this opportunity to conlusorily state many of our rights are really granted to us by the sovereign power of the government. Thankfully for us, we live in a respresentative democracy that essentially allows us to get together and grant ourselves liberties. Thankfully for us, we don't have to try to imagine what life would be like if we hadn't been born or been naturalized here.

Dante said...

Pat, if you think I was heading down the Chomsky highway, you should check out what the folks over at Slashdot (News for Nerds. Stuff that Matters.) have to say about the issue.

And just for kicks, here's the funniest thing I found on Slashdot regarding the story:

"what dead christians? what crushed students? i searched and couldn't find any of this?" -martinX