“Dying for a Facelift: Google China’s Holy Joe Yammering”

face lift

Google is good at most things.  Losing is not one of them.  Neither is consistency.  The fight erupted over Google’s mid-December 2009 allegations that the Chinese government had been trying to hack into the gmail accounts of human rights activists; that it had been snooping on a variety of gmail account holders that supported Chinese human rights advocacy and that it had stolen Google intellectual property.  Beefing up its firepower, Google also claimed on its blogspot, that it was very concerned about “attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web…”.  In response, “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn… this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.”  So far so good. The web was atwitter singing the virtues of Google’s ballsy defiance of the rising superpower.

On January 12, China Digital Times reported that as news spread that Google was considering leaving the country, Chinese citizens brought flowers to Google China’s headquarters in Beijing.   Salon.com comments, “According to a tweet from “jason5ng32,” the action caught the attention of security forces, who promptly coined a new phrase: “illegal flower donation.” You can’t do much better than that, if you’re looking for a metaphor that expresses the Chinese government’s resolve to control freedom of expression — in any medium.”  Google fans were raiding Kleenex boxes, dabbing big tears of pride and admiration from their puffy faces.

But the further you dug, the less you were impressed.  The conversation changed when you took notice of the fact that Google had agreed to censoring by the Chinese government way back when it started Google.cn back in 2006.  “Yes, the Chinese government required that Google censor some of its search results in exchange for doing business legally in the country, and yes, Google’s acquiescence of those restrictions have made it a target of activists all over the world,” states a January 13 Slate.com article. Google’s new fuss about the restrictions on free speech in China lost steam as it tried to justify its 2006 decision by stating, “a more open Internet (courtesy of Google.cn) outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results.”

Google China lost even more of its moral high ground when the fact emerged that, contrary to its overall global trends, it had recently been losing search engine market share (down from 19% in the second quarter of 2009 to 17% in the third) in China. Also, Baidu, a Chinese search engine, was giving Google a humiliating spanking as it towered over the self-assured global giant in Chinese market share.  Now Google’s Holy Joe posturing was making sense.  It was not simply a reaction to cyber scuffles and censorship… this was good, old fashioned face saving.

Google’s threat of retreat was even more undestandable when you considered that, especially in Europe, there are currently huge privacy concerns in regards to the Internet giant’s services.  In ForeignPolicy.com, Evegeny Morozov argued that Google needed a PR boost and that, “Google.cn is the goat that would be sacrificed, for it will generate most positive headlines and may not result in devastating losses to Google’s business…”

In “Soul Searching:  Google’s Position on China might be many things, but moral it is not”, TechCrunch.com is not ashamed to take sides, “Taking a moral position four years too late – whether you’re the first or the last to do so – is like suddenly declaring that you oppose the Iraq war now you’re no longer standing for the Senate or renouncing your own steroid abuse once you’ve retired from professional sports. Which is to say, it’s taking no moral position at all.”  Nuff said.

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Bjorn Karlman

22 thoughts on ““Dying for a Facelift: Google China’s Holy Joe Yammering””

  1. I have tried to boycott Google in the past, but I keep coming back. I can’t really be too hard on them, they might be hypocrites, but they are no more ‘evil’ than any other company. It is kind of annoying that they act like they are different though.

  2. And their mission really does sound quite lofty. Here’s what Slates says: Yet it isn’t a stretch to think that Google’s executive actually did believe that leaving the Chinese without access to their sterling search engine would itself have been a kind of evil. Here is a company that prizes the Internet as the most important invention of the last few centuries. More than any other firm, Google and its employees truly believe in the transformative power of their product; not only do they believe that they’re changing the world, but in many cases they believe profit is a secondary motive.

  3. Let me elaborate a little bit. I think Google censors in the US as well. Type in Adolf Hitler into Google. Normally when you are typing something into Google, it will give you suggestions based on other searches. However, once you type “Adolf” or “Adolf H” Google never suggests Adolf Hitler. That just bothers me for some reason. There have been other times when where I have found content on Google and went back to search for that same site, and it was completely gone.

    Google has to make choices for itself and I respect its right to run its business whatever way it wants, but it is a pretty damn big and powerful company. I think might really need to find a new search engine and email.

  4. Why do you hate on big business/government so much? Surely the issue is not size but effectiveness. Censorship happens to varying degrees everywhere. My beef with Google isn’t that it joins in but that it is posturing and saving face in China off the back of something that isn’t really news.

  5. As I understand it, Google is mightily ticked off that the Chinese govt itself hacked their email service and the relationship has therefore reached a tipping point. As they’re not making much money in China and have received a lot of negative press in the rest of the world about agreeing to censorship, I’d say Google have a lot to gain by leaving China (ie they can reclaim the moral high ground) while losing relatively little financially.

  6. Well I like good competition and decentralized power. I believe power corrupts. At the same time, I totally acknowledge that Google (and really the internet in general) is the greatest decentralizing force in the history of man. I shouldn’t say hate so loosely. I know. I don’t really hate them. I use them all the time. However, if I could find another search engine that was just as good, I would switch without thinking.

  7. And yeah, I definitely agree it got too much heat for agreeing to China’s terms. It was a choice between some censorship or more/total censorship.

  8. the political and business stuff was a little hard for me to follow, but i’m glad someone is doing something about the illegal flower stuff.

  9. So Google doesn’t like big brother (the Chinese government) spying on them or censoring them. I feel this is done within every network and in every country, to some extent. High profile users (such as human rights activists) will always be electronically monitored, censored or otherwise tracked in some manner. If people don’t believe that it doesn’t happen in the U.S. they are being naive. If you put it on the net, or even in a personal email, it’s still out there. Forgive my belief in the conspiracy theory. The only difference I see here is that the Chinese government got caught.

  10. I despise the Chinese government and the country’s reckless disregard for human life and I hate google for giving into their censorship demands. For too long we have put profits ahead of principle so that we may feed our unquenchable desire for cheep crap. Therefore we must give into China’s ridiculous demands, such as not allowing Taiwan (a democratic republic) to wave their flag in sporting events and to bar them from the UN and other international organizations. Though I do agree with you that google is acting hypocritically, I appreciate that this sheds more light on China’s regressive policies. I say let us continue to speak out against injustices… especially here in the good ol’ usa. Let us prove to the world that we fought for independence, not so that some Bostonian merchants wouldn’t have to pay their taxes.

  11. Yeah, I could tighten up my language too for sure. I like good competition but I think decentralized power is a recipe for disaster. Regulation would have saved us from the worst excesses of Wall Street that nearly ruined us. But then I am Swedish and I WOULD be bureaucratic drone.

  12. I actually agree, in the sense that no business should be too big to fail. If these banks weren’t so big, we could allow them to fail and thus avoiding the $700 billion TARP bill. The way it is now, if four or five banks have bad policies, it effects the entire world. There is definitely a role for the government in capitalism. In my observation, it just seems (at least in America) the government does things it shouldn’t and doesn’t do what it should.

  13. Sorry, I don’t know if that was clear, let me say it in a slightly different way. When I say I favor decentralization, I am not talking about government regulations. What I mean is that decentralization allows for choices and it also helps spread risk. In any given market (cars, restaurants, banks, etc.) there should be so many choices you don’t know where to begin as a consumer. It also protects you from bad companies. If GM goes out of business, there will be 10 others to take its place (in terms of jobs as well as providing actual cars to drive). That is the kind of decentralization I mean.

    If the banks hadn’t been too big to fail, we wouldn’t have had to bail them out and they wouldn’t have been such a drag on the economy.

  14. David, what kind of a conservative are you, all down on big business now? :) And yes, government is a spectacular disappointment quite frequently. I just think it is our best bet if we want to affect systemic change.

  15. thanks for the clarification on your use of “decentralized”. Choice for the consumer I would support and that makes me a bad liberal because I do not need for things to be made in the US… the more the variety and the cheaper/more effective the process, the better.

  16. Tristan, I like your Taipei fury. At the risk of incurring more of it, I have to say that the prospect of doing business in Shanghai interests me. So cultural pragmatism and the compromises multinationals make really interest me.. Is it possible that we have do give in some to China in order to get our foot in the door and eventually encourage more enlightened policy making?

  17. I think it’s quite often that the further you dig, the less you will be impressed where money and politics are involved.

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