Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Boycott Google?

I was very disappointed to learn that Google has agreed to censor its search results in China. So disappointed, in fact, that I'd like to send the company a message. The first option that comes to mind is a boycott of Google and its subsidiaries.

That's easier said than done. It would mean not just moving this blog (Google owns Blogger), but changing the way I search, read news, follow Usenet, send e-mail -- in fact, the vast majority of what I do online. The problem is that whenever I try an alternative to Google, it turns out not to be much good. And when I do find a non-Google service I like, it seems Google soon pops up and buys it. (I'm expecting bids for Wikipedia and LibraryThing any day now.) Furthermore, I have no guarantee that any other company would have cleaner hands. As the Reuters story I linked to above notes:

The voluntary concessions laid out on Tuesday by Google, which is launching a China-based search site as it officially enters the market, would parallel similar self-censorship already practised there by most multinationals and domestic players.

Homegrown giants like Inc. and Inc., along with China sites operated by Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft, all routinely block searches on politically sensitive terms such as the Falun Gong spiritual movement and Taiwan independence.

The company added that at least for now, it will stay away from e-mail and blogging in China, which have been the source of recent controversies after Beijing demanded information on an e-mail user from Yahoo, and Microsoft pulled down a politically sensitive posting from its China-based blog service.

A more important question is whether a boycott of Google would actually work. To be effective, any protest would need to cost the company more than it stands to gain from the China deal. Would that happen if a couple of non-paying users stopped using it? If 10,000 did?

Perhaps those best placed to change Google's mind are the company's shareholders. After all, at its initial public offering Google promised them '
not to be evil.' I think they have a right to feel ripped off.


At 4:54 pm, Blogger Dave Justus said...

This is a difficult issue. If Google didn't agree to Chinese demands it wouldn't mean that the Chinese people could more easily get info on banned topics, it would just mean that the Chinese people could not use google.

Is some information better than none? In some ways yes, in other ways no. The more information the Chinese people can get, the more their government will have to modernize. On the other hand, the more productivity China can gain from internet use while maintaining censorship, the more they can maintain the status quo.

I don't think it is clear whether this is 'evil' or not. I would certainly not boycott Google over it.

At 8:27 pm, Blogger Chris Brown said...

Those are very good points, Dave. I was mulling it over myself during the day.

I do acknowledge, certainly, that Google couldn't do business in China without doing what the government told, and if it's true that they'll tell users what they're keeping them away from (rather than pretend it's not there at all) then that is better than nothing. But I do feel that on a symbolic level, it does seem like they're bowing to Beijing and as there are already internet services available there I don't know how much the Chinese people would be losing if they stayed out of there.

That said, I'm inclined against boycotting. I don't think I can ignore it altogether though.

At 9:59 pm, Blogger Laura Brown said...

I know it's just a coincidence, but it's amusing that our Google page rank dropped a point shortly after I published this post!

And Dave, I agree -- those are very good points.

At 10:45 pm, Blogger Dave Justus said...

It also probably depends on how much Google helps the Chinese Government in this. If they merely follow rules that China has made, don't allow these specific sites or these specific topics that is one thing, if they were to use their considerable expertise and information management to help China construct a more effective 'great firewall of China' that would be something else.

Microsoft has strayed perilously close to the latter in my opinion, Google doesn't seem to as of yet.


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