Pity America’s poor internet giants, struggling to add big growth onto already bloated and maturing customer bases! Where must their gaze naturally fall but the promised land of China: so big, so enticing, yet so closed to them and so protected by tight censorship and control.
In just the past few weeks, we have seen Facebook try to open an “innovation hub” in the eastern city of Hangzhou, get tentative local approval to proceed but then have national officials slam the door in its face.
Then leaked news of “Dragonfly,” Google’s secret project to create a restricted and censored China-specific version of its vast and powerful guide to all that is the internet in an attempt to gain official approval. That was followed by reports Google is also looking at versions for China of other services, including a neutered and controlled news app which would omit stories Beijing does not like and a cloud storage service that would be at least partly controlled by Chinese companies and monitored by the authorities.
Management at Google, now part of Alphabet, appears to have concluded that by compromising on its principles, the vast market the company left in 2010 because of censorship worries would again open and Google’s universe of tools, apps and Android-based phone services would be ready to grow again.
This may make sense from a business perspective, but it is a dangerous view ethically and historically. Google is no ordinary business. The vast power it holds over information search and thus human knowledge makes it special and imposes additional moral burdens on it.
For most of the world, “I’ll Google it,” has become the generic phrase any time a question comes up, from the anodyne, say about the opening hours of the neighborhood bar, to the contentious, for example the state of religious freedom in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. If the answers returned are not diverse and free, swathes of knowledge and debate will be constrained, stifled and, worse yet, warped.
Google’s answer to such concerns may well be to say that some information is better than no information and to note that the hobbled version of its search engine will operate only in China. However, we live in an age of new strongmen. Having set a precedent, it will be very difficult for Google to push back and reject the next authoritarian attempt to set the rules.
An example set by President Xi Jinping in China will give encouragement to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and so on. How many different versions of its search engine will Google be willing to create? How will it say “yes” to China but “no” to the next market it wants to keep?
Google has already been forced to make compromises. The European Union’s “right to be forgotten” rules mean history is already edited and curated.
But China’s demands go far further. Myriad versions of “truth.” A score of repressed facts. Blacklists of suppressed keywords. Soon whole concepts of history and knowledge will take on poorer, eviscerated meanings.
The business imperatives, and demands for growth, that are driving Google’s thinking are real: China remains a vast and tempting market.
But if the China market is a must for Alphabet, it should approach its opening in a way that protects and defends its key global brand. It must also make transparency its watchword: censorship by stealth is the most insidious and dangerous.
If the company launches a restricted search engine in China, call it anything but Google, say “SinaGoo” perhaps, to show that it is a China-specific service. Reserve the “Google” brand for the unfettered index wherever it is allowed in the world. Not using the Google name will not hurt business prospects in China all that much as many young Chinese have come of age behind the Great Firewall, with little awareness of the U.S. services they are blocked from using.
Most importantly than branding, Google should state clearly whenever there is an excision or elision or erasure that something is missing at the command of the Chinese government. It’s important that Google results include a special statement that shows where deletions have been made or whole terms have been blocked, as it does in the U.S. for omissions related to complaints under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This is what Google did in China from 2006 till 2010, when it gave up on its “Google.cn” national site.
China may not accept compromise and instead demand total capitulation as the price of entry. As seen in the recent case of Beijing’s pressure on foreign airlines to change how they refer to Taiwan on their websites, China’s ability to focus in on issues it sees as key to its security and sovereignty can extend to minute details.
But companies need to understand their own bottom lines as well, lines that are not just dollars and cents, but ethical, moral, historical and truthful. A company that shows its principals are weak invites further, harder pressure by other state actors.
Google built its business and reputation on its original motto of “Don’t be evil.” Without that moral clarity, the value of its vast intellectual assets will be shaken and its commercial position made vulnerable.
David Schlesinger is managing director of Tripod Advisors, which advises companies on Chinese political risk, media and technology issues. He is the former chairman of Thomson Reuters China.
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