Wednesday, January 25, 2006

China, Google, and Censorship

Over at Instapundit is a collection of posts relating to Google's decision to cooperate with Chinese government officials in censoring web access as a condition for launching Google's search-engine into the Sino-sphere. Naturally this decision is being met with derision and scorn from human rights activists and others dismayed by Google's decision to censor the Net.

It seems to me that these critiques may be a bit short-sighted and possibly even counter-productive. Of course, I would prefer that China was not an authoritarian country, did not censor what its citizens are allowed to read and would not have put Google in this position. But lets consider, for a moment, the nature of US foreign policy towards China which can be described in one word: engagement. The logic stems from IR theories of democratic peace and economic interdependence. In short, the argument goes that as China becomes richer and more integrated into the international community, it will necessarly become more open and free domestically (as middle-class businessmen clamor for more transparency, greater enforcement of rule of law and property rights, a more open and fair economic environment, improved access to information, etc.) and more responsible on the world stage (preferring to gain the benefits of cooperation with the US and the West [such as membership in the WTO and hosting the Olympic Games] as opposed to wages of rogue status).

This is the logic that has guided US policy towards China for decades. It is the logic that prompted the first President Bush to quickly move beyond the Tiananmen Square massacres and re-establish friendly relations with China. It is the same logic that forced President Clinton to renege on his threat to tie China's MFN status to improvements in China's human rights record. It is a long-term strategy that ignores (or at least minimizes) short-term problems and concerns in favor of a slow, evolutionary approach. Better to continue, goes the argument, the slow transition towards a liberal economy and freer society than harp on one particular and immediate human rights violation and undermine the whole process.

Now, I do not believe (although I admit I know little about business so perhaps I'm wrong) that Google is aware of its role in this strategy and that Google's executives do not see their business decisions regarding China as fitting into the bigger picture of US foreign policy. But, I also believe that criticizing Google in hopes that it will be shamed into abandoning its ventures in China is a bad, short-sighted idea. China is already a more open and freer society than it was 10 or 15 years ago, and while the trajectory may not be smooth or even, it is trending towards even more freedom. If Google can assist that long-term development, it may be worth a little short-term censorship. This, in a nutshell, is what is known as realpolitik.


smilerz said...

I agree, though for slightly different reasons.

Dan Kahan said...

I think that you may be overestimating Google's capacity for following the foreign policy cues of the West.

Google's executives have claimed that they determined it to be "less evil" on their "evil scale" to cooperate with the censorship regime than to deny Chinese users of Google entirely. Novel way to approach a problem, had that Bentham-Mill duo not come up with it first. It is my contention that a more appropriate framework for examining the decision is to be found in political theory in general – and in utilitarianism, specifically – rather than IR theory.

Beside the language of utilitarianism sprinkled throughout their public statements, other comments made by Google's executives seem contrary to the defense you offer. In the infamous Playboy interview (infamous only because it was during the "quiet period" before Google's IPO), co-founder Sergey Brin was asked if Google had yet to cooperate with Chinese requests to censor its results after the Chinese had sporadically blocked access to the search engine. "No," said Brin, "There was enough popular demand in China for our services, information, commerce, and so forth that the government re-enabled us."

The most amazing thing about that statement is that it was actually true. Google, like Yahoo and Microsoft, really does have the power to loosen the chokehold of censorship regimes. They have a sort of leverage – popular demand – that no regime, authoritarian or otherwise, could afford to ignore. That they chose to cooperate with the world's most comprehensive censorship regime rather than use that leverage is regrettable, even if their decision happens to be congruent with the larger policy goals of this country.

Seth Weinberger said...


Good comment. A couple of things: First, I specifically say that I do not belive that Google is intentionally following US foreign policy cues. Second, you're right to say that there certainly is the possibility of denying China things it wants as punishment for unacceptable behavior. But China has in the past, as in the MFN debate under Clinton, demonstrated that it indeed willing to give up access to those goods in defiance of demands of improved behavior. The question then becomes: What's the best option at that point? If Google could refuse to provide its services, and if China would not adapt its actions in order to placate Google, what is the best move? Google could refuse to serve China. But, if Google's technology could, over time, act to open up China by providing access to information, even if censored, then which is the best option? Again, I don't know if Google makes calculations like this. Most likely, Google's actions are driven by the bottom line. All I'm saying is that we shouldn't be so quick to scold or punish Google, as its actions may in fact be in line with US foreign policy preferences and the ultimate well-being of the Chinese people.

Dan Kahan said...

I agree with a lot of the points you make, but I think a fundamental assumption in your argument (and in many others') is that Google (hereinafter "G") must choose between (1) providing a censored service and (2) providing no service at all. I think that is an incorrect assumption.

There is a third option, wherein G would continue to follow its pre-IPO policy of leaving the censoring to the governments of countries like China and Saudi Arabia. G refused in the past to censor its results in China and the CCP was ultimately forced to let Chinese surfers access the site. Does anyone honestly think that the CCP could afford, with the massive user base G has in China, to simply make it disappear again? One of the goals of engagement that you stated, "to open up China by providing access to information," was already happening, slowly. But it was happening only because G refused to censor. The fact remains that G could have -- and, in my opinion, should have -- continued in this vein, letting Chinese users have unfettered access to its results and forcing the CCP to censor, if there was to be censoring at all. Taking this third option leaves China, and not G, to make the difficult decisions.

G's decision is not between censorship and shutting down. The very idea that G would ever discontinue its services -- either willingly or coerced -- in China is ridiculous. As such, G is not in the position to choose between the lesser of two evils, one serving US foreign policy preferences and the other not. The goals of engagement would have been better served if they had just preserved the status quo, but instead, they chose to stop empowering the people of China and to start empowering the censorship regime.

Seth Weinberger said...


Thanks for the comments...this is an extremely interesting debate.

As to your argument of a third option for Google, you may be right. I don't know that much about business or Google's MO in specific. But if the option is as easy as you claim -- that Google could simply have continued its status quo policy -- then why did Google choose to cooperate with Chinese censors? My guess is that wasn't an option anymore. Does Google simply want to be complicit in censorhip? I doubt it. While I do not believe that Google makes business decisions according to its moral compass, all things being equal, Google would probably prefer not to be seen as abetting in censorship and oppression. So, given your third option, of which Google must have been aware if it was pre-IPO behavior, why would Google choose a different path?

Dan Kahan said...

I think you and I both have implicated the same 800-lb. gorilla: a $100bn market capitalization. The "status quo" policy I refer to was a product of Google when it was still private, whereas the new policy is a product of a public company beholden to shareholder interests. While I don't mean to sound like a Marxist, those new interests -- that don't align as nicely with human rights issues as the old ones did -- seem to be the catalyst.

Dr. Gaht Sambeer said...

But who is to say that in a democratic state, like the United States, that the public shareholders don't have the right to at least partially determine how their public company is run? Though I agree that Google (hereinafter "G") does have its own agenda, and does not (and should not) mold its ideals around the public shareholders, that's not to say that they cannot act as a catalyst for the company itself.

Seth Weinberger said...

Dan and Dr. Sambeer:

Your comments are, it seems to me, to be connected. The role of the public, and shareholders in particular, make Google's decision all the more complicated. On the one hand is the desire to increase profits. But why would selecting Dan's third option have undermined the bottom line? If Google could have supplied the same technology but permitted the Chinese to censor it, rather than becoming involved in the censorship, how would that have been a less attractive option to Google's shareholders? If anything, Dan's third option should be MORE attractive, as it disguises Google's role and complicity in Chinese censorship. I'm still not convinced that this third option exists. It seems more likely to me that China offered a "take-it-or-leave-it" deal, where Google could either comply with Chinese regulations or China would find some other company to provide the service. Google is, therefore, better off for agreeing, and this fits into the long-range US strategy vis-a-vis China (again, albeit unintentionally).

Dan Kahan said...


I apologize for not being clearer before, but the reason, I believe, why the third option is not attractive financially is because of the uncertainty it entails. Google has suffered periodic "blackouts" in China in the past and, I think, fears more in the future. When you look at Google's main source of revenue - advertising - a blackout of a few days can add up to millions in lost revenue. I don't think that China has given Google any sort of ultimatum, but of course, that is just my guess.

Dr. Sambeer,

Hopefully, as a growing number of users express their disagreement with the censorship policies, Google's shareholders will decide that it's in their best (financial) interests to encourage Google's management to stop cooperating with the censorship regime. That sort of campaign might be a long way off, though.