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Feb. 23, 2006

Censorship: Google's newest business strategy

by Lois Bangiolo, Online Managing Editor
"In line with local laws and policies, parts of the result are not listed." Written in Chinese characters, this message appears across the bottom of a web page after a search. Unfortunately Google, a company that has prided itself on its accurate, unbiased web searches, has hypocritically decided that censorship is acceptable when there is money to be made.

This blatant display of censorship appears when Chinese web-goers search any terms from a list of 20 broad topics, such as "Tibetan Independence" or "Taiwan," on Google China, Google's latest attempt to personalize and globalize the Google service.

Google China, the new Chinese-based version of Google, was designed to improve speed and accessibility of the internet to Chinese and was launched Jan. 25. Google had been available in China before but was censored by the "Great Firewall," a system of government instituted blocks that made it difficult to access and use the site. But this time around, not only is the government censoring Google, but Google is censoring itself.

All of this restriction has come from a company whose corporate philosophy states the opposite: "Google has steadfastly refused to make any change that does not offer a benefit to the users who come to the site." Censoring information benefits only the Chinese government.

But what Google really wants is to maintain a place in China. Cooperating with the Chinese authorities gives Google access to the second-largest market of internet users in the world. The number of internet search engine users is expected to increase from 100 million to 187 million in two years, a growth that is coupled with a predicted burgeoning of the value of China's search engine market from $87 million to $370 million by 2007, according to Analysis International. Maintaining a hold in China's lucrative market is a business opportunity that Google does not intend to pass up.

Google also faces competition within the China. Baidu, China's own search engine, is quickly taking over the Chinese market. It holds 52 percent of the search engine market in Beijing, 44 percent in Shanghai and 48 percent in Guangzhou. Google only has 33, 38 and 29 percent, respectively, a significant gap that Google must be eager to close — especially since only three months ago, Google had the biggest market share, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.

Google says that cooperating with Chinese government authorities allows it to provide some functionality to Chinese users, which they argue is better than providing no search service at all. According to the statement issued by Google, "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission."

Google China does provide information to Chinese users, but with this censorship in place, the quality of the information is greatly at stake, coming dangerously close to the "heavily degraded user experience" that Google says it is trying to avoid. A Google China search reflects solely the viewpoint of the communist regime since only search results that survive the government-chosen blocks appear. While this limited search engine does provide some information, this bias prevents it from providing information that is accurate, which can essentially amount to no information at all.

The Tiananmen Square protests — a series of student-led demonstrations against the Chinese government in 1989 — are a sensitive topic, and, therefore, Google China does not allow users to view information about them. Violent repressions by the military caused the death of 2,600 protesters, according to the Chinese Red Cross. Yet, a Google China image search does not reveal a single image of blood or the massacre. Gone are the pictures of tanks and protestors; they are replaced by innocent celebrations, buildings and maps of the area. If a user enters Tiananmen Square into uncensored Google, the first images show the tanks rolling in.

In stark contrast to their China policies, Google recently demonstrated the value of freedom in the United States when they refused to release users' personal information to the U.S. Department of Justice. But in a country ruled by democratic principles and people's rights, this show of integrity was an easy move to make. Google's American users would be outraged if Google violated personal privacy. Under China's communist government, the situation is quite the opposite and Google, rather than sticking to the ideals it can safely embrace in the United States, took the profitable and hypocritical way out, choosing to block freedom of expression to stay in business.

Google's founder letter states, "search results are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating." In China, though, users can wave goodbye to "unbiased and objective" search results, because Google, apparently, willingly trades integrity for money and freedom for censorship.



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  • H. Meyerson on February 24, 2006 at 12:04 AM
    Let me get this straight: For years, Mal-Mart's been making billions off of Chinese labor and has made every possibly accommodation for the Chinese government. Ever bought a product that has "made in China" somewhere on the package? Chances are your money is going to a company that's done more than it's fair share of sucking up to Beijing.

    But Google makes a few accommodations, and suddenly the "integrity" of a multi-billion dollar company, and indeed the entire free internet is at stake. Reality check, people: Google, which can read your mail, broadcasts satellite pictures of the Capitol building and White House for the whole world to see, keeps and can potentially see all of your searches, and which has for the last year or so demonstrated its complete disdain for intellectual property law, has no integrity. The internet, which is, despite its occasional bright spots, still a global network of gossip sites, scams and smut, has no integrity. And American business, which has taken advantage of China's large population, lack of labor laws, and U.S.-friendly monetary policy for decades, has no integrity on this issue either.

    It's sad that Google's stooped to the level of Wal-Mart. But this must be kept in perspective. I think the main point here isn’t that Google’s compromised itself, but that the Chinese government is actually using the free market to consolidate its power, and not to introduce democratic and political reforms as much as the west has hoped. THAT's the real story here, I think...
  • you're not being fair on February 24, 2006 at 12:51 AM
    google can't do everything... something is better than nothing... censorship isn't all that bad you know
  • Anonymously Liberal (View Email) on February 24, 2006 at 12:26 PM
    Am I the only one that doesn't see a substantial argument against Google's "statement?"

    "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission."

    This article does not seem to refute this statement at all.

    More importantly, the article does not indicate how Google would make money off the Chinese market. From a journalistic point of view, this is inexcusable.
    Although I have not (yet) thoroughly researched the economic effects of the Chinese market upon Google's profits, undoubtedly, it attracts investment from a variety of investors. Much of Google's profit comes from unobtrusive advertisements, and one could make the point that due to government restrictions, translation issues, and cultural differences, only advertisements for Chinese companies would be of interest to Chinese surfers. Arguably, this would be subject to more censorship and severely limit Google's profit in China. But that's just hypothetical.
  • Anonymously Liberal (View Email) on February 24, 2006 at 12:27 PM
    I apologize for the error in the previous post on the value of the Chinese market. My bad.
  • Anarchist on February 24, 2006 at 12:46 PM
    There's a difference between Wal-Mart, a company that is usually criticised for its business practices, and Google, a company that includes "Don't Be Evil" as a core business principle.
  • gfyhtetretw on February 24, 2006 at 1:13 PM
    i had no idea this was happening. im really dissapointed in google. thank you for bringing this to light.
  • H. Meyerson on February 24, 2006 at 5:09 PM
    There is a difference. Wal-Mart doesn't pretend not to be evil. Google, however, maintains a duplicitous veneer of moral superiority--and you all fell for it.
  • (View Email) on February 25, 2006 at 5:33 PM
    Unfortunately, google had a choice to make. Remove some of the results from their Chinese version (sorry, censorship is not when a company removes some of its results, but when the government or another organization stops another person/organization from speech when the person wants to), or have Chinese people not to be able to use their web site. It's either let them do some searches, or no searches. They chose some. This is more beneficial to the Chinese, who can now at least search some of the internet on google, as well as to google who makes money (they are a business, NOT a charity responsible for providing free stuff to people). It's a win-win situation, and you're condemning it???

    To Anonymous Liberal:
    google makes their money by advertising. Advertisers pay money to get ads on the site, and when you search for something with their terms in it, their site comes up (next time you do a google search, look on the right or up top at the couple advertisements).
  • librarian on February 28, 2006 at 9:49 AM
    To :: ::

    No, censorship is not when "the government or another org. stops another person/org. from speech." That's a freedom of speech violation. Censorship is the deletion or supression of information. Look it up.
  • librarian on February 28, 2006 at 9:55 AM
    I should have said, "not just when govt. etc." but also deletion or suppression of info.
  • (View Email) on February 28, 2006 at 2:49 PM
    "No, censorship is not when "the government or another org. stops another person/org. from speech." That's a freedom of speech violation. Censorship is the deletion or supression of information. Look it up." - librarian

    yes, but censorship is NOT when they choose to not distribute something. I may have wealths of knowledge, and if I choose not to tell you, is that censorship? There was no censorship, this company didn't want to give the Chinese some of the information. Considering it was illegal in China and it was either some or none, that made sense.
  • librarian on March 1, 2006 at 9:26 AM
    to :: ::Yes, if you are the government and have important information that you don't give me, that is censorship. It's the Chinese government that is not allowing Google to give out the info., not Google deciding. If the U.S. government killed even one person during a protest, we would be appalled if this information was repressed by the government- that's censorship and that's what the Chinese government is doing with the help of Google. Have you heard of the four students killed at Kent State in 1970? Yes, because it wasn't censored. People in China don't know thousands of people were killed at Tianamen Square because it was censored and you seem to think that's ok that Google helps to cover that up.
  • Ponder on March 1, 2006 at 6:41 PM
    Actually, people in China do know that almost a thousand people were killed in the Tian an men Square incident (Not thousands, that was just exaggeration on the part of Western presses because the actual number was never released.)

    Anyways, you have to remember the one purpose of government : to stay in power, and keep other governments from getting to power. The U.S. government would not allow anybody to give propoganda to overthrow the government, or to pretty much change it to a form that is extremely dissimilar to itself. The same is with China: It would not allow any information that would inspire revolts and revolutions, which includes anything that states along the lines of "you are under a tyranny and democracy is the way to go."
  • (View Email) on March 1, 2006 at 8:09 PM
    Of course China is censoring it. That was my point, google wasn't doing the censoring. It was either give them some information, or give them information they won't be able to access. This is the Chinese government censoring, NOT google.

    Google is not helping to cover it up. If they refused to not display stuff on Tianamen Square, the Chinese still wouldn't know about it because they wouldn't be able to read ANYTHING on google. Google is not God, they don't have a responsibility to spread information to the world. They are a business, they make money. Place on top of that the fact that they couldn't do anything about it in the first place and it makes your argument as well as the author's extremely weak.
  • outsider (View Email) on July 25, 2006 at 7:50 PM
    Please, i dont mean to be rude, but many of the articles im reading in Silver Chips Opinion section arent really opinionated. The aforementioned article would serve as a very well written news article, but since it lacks the writers opinion, (or little of it) it is my opinion that it be in news. I know this may sound as a half-hearted attempt to deprecate the hardwork of Silver Chip journalists, but i do not mean to do so. This is only a suggestion, and i would like to hear your opinions on it. I also see the same problem in many of the other opinion articles.
  • librarian on December 7, 2006 at 4:15 PM
    re: outsider. Cornell University considered it opinion and used this editorial as required reading for a course in Information Science last spring.
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