Google’s Chinese Perestroika, Microsoft and the New Search Cold War

From China, with love, still

  Bing China
Google has apparently had a lot of digging, years’ worth in fact, under libraries of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, and under tomes of proletarian guidelines for wannabe red companies, to find an old, dusty self-policy manual on which the mantra “don’t be evil” had faded almost entirely. Of course, it took highly sophisticated cyber attacks originated in China, allegedly connected with the Chinese government, and the revelation that Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists had been hacked and were accessed routinely by third-parties, to catalyze Google’s divorce from its red marriage with the largest vestige of communism worldwide.

At the start of this week, David Drummond, SVP, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer, noted that “We stopped censoring our search services - Google Search, Google News, and Google Images - on Google.cn. Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong. Users in Hong Kong will continue to receive their existing uncensored, traditional Chinese service, also from Google.com.hk. Due to the increased load on our Hong Kong servers and the complicated nature of these changes, users may see some slowdown in service or find some products temporarily inaccessible as we switch everything over.”

Almost immediately after Google made its move, China countered with its nation-wide firewall, and started blocking access to Google.com.hk. In the four years it has trimmed the search results at the whim of the Chinese Communist Party, per the “Jump! How high?” model, with the “don’t be evil” manual mentioned above acting as a trampoline, Google has been pounded by human rights groups. But with a small anti-censorship pirouette, it ended up on the good guy’s side of the barricades, and is being praised as principled and brave, rather than a “de facto accomplice to repression,” according to the NY Times. All past four years worth of sins forgotten. Just like that.

Moreover, the democratic explosion of high-fiving and self-congratulatory slaps on the back in Mountain View also apparently started a new search cold war, with all eyes focusing on Redmond, to see whether Microsoft would cleanse the red nuances in the $80 million worth of #0033CC blue used for Bing. All of a sudden, Microsoft is now cornered in a fresh red-witch hunt over the search market in China, for continuing to do what itself and Google have been doing for years, namely provide censored search services to Chinese users.

Falling in line with Google’s Chinese Perestroika

Microsoft obviously failed to fall in line with Google’s Chinese Perestroika, and for good reasons, albeit incomparably less evident than the new stance taken by the search giant in Mountain View. As a result, the Redmond-based company started attracting criticism, such as the remark from Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who said that Microsoft “Need to get on the right side of human rights rather than enabling tyranny, which they're doing right now” (via CNNMoney). Smith is a Congressman in a country that owes Beijing almost $1 trillion, for all the US Treasury Securities acquired by China. Of course, using Chinese money is not enabling tyranny. After all, the US federal debt held by the public is all about business, not politics, and dollars are green, some might say the opposite of red.

Here’s Microsoft’s official statement on not breaking ties with China, “We appreciate that different companies may make different decisions based on their own experiences and views. At Microsoft we remain committed to advancing free expression through active engagement in over 100 countries, even as we comply with the laws in every country in which we operate. We have done business in China for more than 20 years and we intend to continue our business there. We also regularly communicate with governments, including the Chinese, to advocate for free expression, transparency, and the rule of law. We will continue to do so.”

Google co-founder Sergey Brin had a small ad-hoc Mikhail Gorbachev moment as he was discussing Google’s Chinese Perestroika with The Guardian, and said "I'm very disappointed for them [Microsoft] in particular. [...] As I understand, they have effectively no market share – so they essentially spoke against freedom of speech and human rights simply in order to contradict Google."

Remember, this is the same Brin that in the past defended Google’s self-censorship at the request of the Chinese Communist Party, indicating years on end that Chinese users were better off with a censored Google than no Google at all.

“Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on Google.cn has been hard. We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement. We believe this new approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from Google.com.hk is a sensible solution to the challenges we've faced - it's entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China. We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services,” Drummond added.

From China, with love, still

Save for Google Search, Google News, and Google Images on Google.cn, which immigrated to Hong Kong, Google is still very much sleeping in the same bed as before, with permission from the Chinese Communist Party. As a matter of fact, the Mountain View-based company has absolutely no plans to leave China altogether. Even more, it is fully aware of the fact that its decisions overseas have left its people working for Google China with their backs against the wall.

“In terms of Google's wider business operations, we intend to continue R&D work in China and also to maintain a sales presence there, though the size of the sales team will obviously be partially dependent on the ability of mainland Chinese users to access Google.com.hk. Finally, we would like to make clear that all these decisions have been driven and implemented by our executives in the United States, and that none of our employees in China can, or should, be held responsible for them. Despite all the uncertainty and difficulties they have faced since we made our announcement in January, they have continued to focus on serving our Chinese users and customers. We are immensely proud of them,” Drummond explained.

Google’s new found anti-communism is in fact misplaced, being on the safe side of the front, not even in no-man’s land, but from the comfort of its Mountain View headquarters. While the move might have caused repercussions internationally, mainland China is bound to remain isolated, and unaware of Google’s move. And I don’t see Brin anywhere near the Tiananmen Square anytime soon. Do you? To make matters worse, how much time do you think will pass until the Chinese government goes gunning for the employees of Google China, now left stranded from the Mountain View mother ship? Let me tell you, this is one prediction that I would rather see fail miserably than come to fruition.

And, then again, what if tomorrow, Google stops complying with the laws in the US, and threatens to take its operation out of the country unless the government meets its demands? And why shouldn’t it? Now there’s a precedent. But do you really want to live in a country whose government is controlled by Google, or any other company for that matter?

The red side of the front

Just exercise caution when it comes to politicized good-evil dichotomies, no matter how they are dressed up and paraded for your perception. Trust me, I’m in no way defending communism, free speech censorship, the violation of human rights, or China. For the first part of my life, I lived under a communist regime, and if it weren’t for democracy, free speech and human rights, I probably wouldn’t be here today. I would certainly not have been able to write this.

You see, one of the best weapons against communism is free information, let’s call it the truth. The best way to dispense the truth in the context of a communist regime is from within, especially in one as isolated as China, cut off through a combination of linguistic barriers and governmental censorship. Google is really serving nobody by cutting access to what little information did slip through the censorship for mainland Chinese users. It certainly won’t do any good to Chinese people. If Google had really wanted to make an impact, it could have done so subversively. Cut down censorship, and just blame it on a bug, a hack, a wild Panda ravaging datacenter shelves made of bamboo. Blame it on the hack that originated from within China.

But don’t be a silent partisan to the Chinese communist regime for years, executing censorship and justifying it to the world, only to have a free speech revelation catalyzed by the precarious situation generated by cyber-attacks. And don’t wear the laurels of a leader in morality, when for so long you held your head down, forgotten the principles you should be preaching, and embraced communism for profit.

I don’t believe it’s Microsoft’s business, or of any other company for that matter, to do more than just “business” in China. Certainly not when the best actions from the international community and country leaders worldwide have been limited to mild criticism and posing for pictures with the Dalai Lama. China will ultimately find its way out of communism, a natural evolution that can be speeded up through access to information. But positioning sources of information outside the Great Chinese Firewall is not the way to bring truth to the largest mass of Internet users in the world.

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By    27 Mar 2010, 11:57 GMT