Monday, June 19, 2006

Google's Embrace of Chinese Censorship
Forever Puts to Rest 'Don't Be Evil' Motto

A generation ago, historian Hannah Arendt coined a memorable phrase while watching the trial of Nazi figure Adolph Eichmann: she called it the "banality of evil." The current regime in mainland China may not be quite so evil, but they're apparently just as banal. Only why do our leading tech firms have to provide them aid and comfort in their outrages? Ever wonder what query words Google has agreed to omit for delicate Chinese web-surfers at the behest of their repressive government? They include such explosive words as allegation, bedroom, despair, eloquent, essay, flashlight, irresponsible, literature, miserable, teenager and vague. You can see the full revolting list
here. Thanks to the ever-vigilant Google-watcher John Battelle and his excellent Search blog for calling attention to this. The bitter irony, of course, is that Google's informal corporate motto has long been Don't Be Evil. Too bad that sentiment seems to stop at the Chinese border.


At 12:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Have you seen any "official" or public commentary from Google on why (other than the obvious $)they agreed to Chinese censorship? As a public company, Google management has a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders--which would imply that idealism is subordinate to capitalism. Maybe "Don't be evil", in its highest form, isn't possible for publicly traded companies?

At 12:52 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Anne, you're right on. Public companies are indeed under pressure from investors (at least eventually) to comply with the laws of various countries, however offensive they might be, rather than just sit on their hands out of some higher notion of right and wrong. I suppose I do sympathize with them on that. Chinese officials have been blocking access to Google, which of course would be a huge potential lost market for them should it have continued.

As for Google's reaction, they have mostly repeated the line that they must comply with the laws of various governments as they find them. Having said all that, I found it a bit shocking (sorry, there's just no other word for it) how many of these words were so routine. It reminded me of the extreme touchiness of Communist Chinese officials, who really haven't changed since their sickening crackdown in the Tienemen Square incident. I think at the very least, Google might have tried to bring attention to this in its defense of an otherwise difficult position.

At 6:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Google needs you in its PR department.

At 12:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post John.

An additional thought:
On the same Google Ten Things page where you can find "You can make money without doing evil", you will find number four on the list is "Democracy on the web works". Well, according to Google, apparently Communism works too! And restricting the rights of people to type whatever they wish into a search engine must not be evil. I wish them luck with their philosophy.

I believe this falls along the same lines as this: If someone feels they have to tell you that they are a good person, then you should definitely question whether or not they are a good person.

At 12:15 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Jim, that's a wonderful addition to the point. This is a great example of a thread in which the readers added more interesting detail through their comments than they initially found in the original post. I thank you both for reading, thinking and commenting.

At 4:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's the spark that starts the fire! :-)

At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did not take a look at the list, but "shocking" might be on there. Are the following phrases on that list: "social responsibility", "corporate citizenry", "doing good while doing well", oh wait, the stock just moved up fifty cents, take out the word "freedom" for a dollar.

At 11:14 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Welcome to the discussion, Lou. Glad that people seem to be interested in this subject, because it's only going to get more important every day. Google is endlessly interesting as an experiment in a new way of running a business, but given their unique place at the intersection of technology and information, they are going to be increasingly pressured to think clearly about everything from civil liberties to journalistic integrity.

When they first went public, they famously thumbed their nose at Wall Street by holding a so-called "Dutch auction," a process designed to apportion shares in a way that limits Wall Street firms' commissions and their wink-wink way of reserving IPO shares to already-wealthy clients and other insiders. That was of course good.

But when you're public, you can only get away with so much independence and corporate responsibility. This Boston Herald article from last week suggests that at least one of the founders is having second thoughts about the decision to comply with the Chinese government.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Sorry, here's the link:


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