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Last Updated: Friday, 27 January 2006, 12:00 GMT
Why Google in China makes sense
Image of Google China homepage, AFP
Google has been criticised for its stance on China
The latest stage of Google's move into China has proved controversial, but Bill Thompson believes it has made the right decision.

So Google has fallen off its pedestal at last.

It took a while, but the company's decision to launch a Chinese language search engine hosted on servers inside the People's Republic, one which complies with local law restricting which content can be retrieved, has finally exposed the hollowness of its ambition to "Do no evil" and shown that Larry, Sergey and the others are just capitalist monsters after all.

Forgive me if I refuse to go along with the knee-jerk consensus on this one.

Millions of people may now be turning away from Google in disgust, but I've just reinstated them as the default search for my Firefox toolbar, because I think it should be supported for its brave decision.

Even if the primary motivation for going into China is that it makes commercial sense for the company - as indeed it must do, since US law is quite harsh on boards that take actions which could damage shareholder value - it also makes political sense.

Supporters of free speech and open societies should be supporting Google rather than lambasting it.

Censor ware

Most of the news coverage of the launch of google.cn acted as if this was its first move into China but Google and other US-owned search engines have been active there for some time.

Bill Thompson
But if we in the West, with our liberal political culture and our attempts to build open societies, do not engage with China then we lose the opportunity to influence them and convince them of the benefits that this brings

In fact Yahoo and MSN both censor search results, and when MSN closed down Zhao Jing's blog and Yahoo handed over the account details of a Chinese blogger to the authorities it made few waves outside the technology pages.

Google already operates in China with the government's consent, and is even a part-owner of biggest native search engine, Baidu.

So in many ways the launch of a Chinese-based index is a much less significant development than it seems from the tone of the coverage it is getting.

It is also significant because the Google page will let people know if their search results are being restricted, something that doesn't happen if the filtering is done by the government.

Amidst all the fuss about Google's decision to comply with local law in China it is easy to overlook the fact that internet content is censored and controlled almost everywhere.

Even in the US, where the First Amendment protects speech from government interference, service providers impose terms and conditions of use that limit what can be posted online and search engines routinely take content from their indexes if it infringes copyright or is deemed inappropriate.

In some countries the controls are obvious and oppressive - everyone who wants to use the internet in Cuba must register with the government, bloggers in Iran are gaoled and their websites are blocked, and governments from Saudi Arabia to Singapore decide which websites their citizens can see.

In other countries it's a bit more subtle. Search for Falun Gong using Yahoo in China and you'll find that the results list is rather sparse and consists mostly of government-sponsored sites which oppose the group.

Screen saver

Here in the UK we have many restrictions on what we can say online. Libels, speech likely to incite violence or racial hatred, names of serving intelligence officers and even computer-generated images of sexual acts involving children are all illegal and suppressed.

Anti-Google protestors, AP
Google's decision on China led to protests
Sometimes we don't even know what is being restricted.

If you use BT's net service and type in the web address of a site believed to contain images of child abuse you'll get a "site not found" error with no indication at all that the site has been censored by the Cleanfeed service - and of course, you have no opportunity to question the censorship or have a site removed from the list because you aren't ever told it is on a list.

At least if I search for "democracy" on google.cn I'll be told that the results have been restricted by local law.

The question of whether freedom of speech is absolute and indivisible is not just an internet issue, and although the network brings new factors into the discussion we should not allow them to dominate it.

The politics mattered long before the network invented and they will still matter long after it has been superseded.

And in political terms, Google's decision work with the Chinese authorities seems justifiable.

With power comes responsibility, and Google now has more power than any other corporation to shape the way the internet evolves. As John Battelle puts it in his book Search, "as far as the internet ecosystem is concerned, Google is the weather".

I've been writing about the company for some years and even interviewed founder Sergey Brin for the now-defunct "Internet" magazine back in February 2000 when he was worth significantly less than his current $10 billion.

Chinese shoppers near billboard, AFP

I've watched its core index get polluted by spam and blog postings, applauded its attempts to clean it up, expressed concern over its attitude to privacy and personal data, and supported it in its plan to scan and index the world's libraries.

Throughout it all I've refused to be impressed by its claims to be somehow "different" from other hi-tech companies, and chosen instead to judge it by what it does and not the way its tries to spin its corporate ethos.

But it has always been clear that the founders do have a deeper awareness of social and political issues than they were able to express through the company. Perhaps China is where the two come together.

I don't care whether Google succeeds or fails as a company. In fact, if it does not sort out its approach to privacy and stop assuming that it is the only arbiter of what can be stored on its servers then it deserves to suffer, just as Microsoft has suffered over its appalling failure to acknowledge the importance of computer security.

But if we in the West, with our liberal political culture and our attempts to build open societies, do not engage with China then we lose the opportunity to influence them and convince them of the benefits that this brings. If the Chinese government fears instability then we should offer help and advice and support, not closed borders and locked doors.

Different circumstances require different responses, and just because sanctions were the right way to put pressure on apartheid South Africa does not mean that a technology blockade is the way to influence China.

Constructive engagement in a way that respects but also challenges local law seems a far better option, and that, for all its risks, is what Google is attempting to do.

They may make some money out of it, but that's fine, because they may also show the Chinese leadership that openness can bring benefits as well as pose threats.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

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