The Real Cost of Google's Sellout to China
Google is perfectly willing to posture as a brave defender of the privacy of its users in the U.S. marketplace it already dominates while caving to the immense commercial opportunity awaiting it in China. This is a harsh reminder that the concentration of media in the past decade has made the few giant companies that now control them more vulnerable to demands from foreign -- and domestic -- governments with their own agenda.
(January 26, 2006) -- Last week Google announced its intention to resist a Department of Justice court action underway. DOJ wanted Google to allow a surveillance test of millions of its users' search queries as part of its effort to enforce online pornography legislation passed by Congress to protect children. Yahoo, AOL, and MSN had already agreed to cooperate. But now, in an extraordinary development, Google has announced its decision to join the largest internet censorship effort in the world, being run by Communist China.
Google will actively assist the Chinese government in barring access to thousands of Web sites and search terms, in fact anything on the World Wide Web the Chinese feel might destablize its authoritarian government. It will also eliminate the blogging and e-mail services it offers elsewhere in the world. According to the Associated Press: "Google officials characterized the censorship concessions in China as an excruciating decision for a company that adopted 'don't be evil' as a motto."
Does Google's concept of "evil" exclude surpressing the free access it currently offers the 100 million Chinese estimated to be on the internet? What's going on here?
It is simple enough. Google is talking out of both sides of its mouth. Google is perfectly willing to posture as a brave defender of the privacy of its users in the U.S. marketplace it already dominates while caving to the immense commercial opportunity awaiting it in China. Booming China is already the second largest Internet market in the world and soon will pass the largest -- the United States.
Google has been badly hampered by the filters placed on access to it by the Chinese government. They slow its search speeds to a crawl, make it undependable, and would keep Google at a competitive commercial disadvantage unless it complied with China's demands. But it now seems more than likely that if some U.S. administration decided to turn Google into a Patriot Act censorship engine or put it under similar restrictions, Google would suddenly find that wasn't "evil" either.
It isn't as if Google is in dire straits. The Poynter Institute's analyst Rick Edmonds pointed out in his review of financial performances at year- end 2005, the market capitalization of "Google itself is valued at more than $80 billion. After the battering of 2005, newspaper stocks collectively are down to a market cap of about $65 billion."
So today, Google, all by itself, has a larger market capitalization than the entire U.S. newspaper industry. In the past month alone Google's market cap went up to $130.9 billion, twice the newspaper industry. It is now the second largest technology company in the country after Microsoft.
The press faced an annus horribilis in 2005 with the number of challenges to what it believed were normal exercises of its vital First Amendment freedoms of inquiry. This year promises to be worse as the Scooter Libby defense team is expected to subpoena members of the press in far more extensive numbers than led to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's indictment. And a promised investigation of the leaks that led to The New York Times' reporting on the Federal Government's secret surveillance of foreign terrorist contacts with individuals inside the United States may be an historic test of both the powers of the executive branch and of the rights of the press under the First Amendment.
Google isn't the first Western company to cave to Chinese pressure. But Google is by far the largest and most worrisome case yet. The explosion of Internet companies has created a new form of media. While listed as a technology company like IBM or Intel, Google might be more intelligently viewed as a new media company. Thanks to its search technology, governments no longer have to censor book-by-book or publication-by-publication. They can censor an entire universal library instantly with terrifying efficiency.
Google has already announced its intention to create just such a library with "The Google Library Project," which has been justly criticized for its "negative option" attack on the basic concept of copyright. Many are concerned that the concentration of media that has taken place in the past decade has made the few giant companies that now control them more vulnerable to compliance demands from foreign and domestic governments with their own agenda. And American media companies have been tempted to jettison their standards before in order to gain entry to a major market in a totalitarian state.
Some years ago, as the Soviet Union was headed for its demise, a Moscow Book Fair was announced and publishers in the United States and throughout the world flocked to gain access to a huge potential new market. The Soviets promised an open market at the Fair to display what publishers felt were their best books most suited to the market. But as soon as the Fair opened, Soviet police moved in on publishers and confiscated books they felt might "feed agitation."
Other publishers, fearing this kind of action, had already self-censored the books they displayed or quickly removed them on the spot. Times Books, the general book publisher owned by the New York Times Company, immediately withdrew from the Fair, arguing that it was difficult to maintain First Amendment standards in the United States while conceding them elsewhere. A lively debate ensued, and the Moscow Book Fair was seriously diminished as a marketplace thereafter.
Perhaps in the 21st century, Google now believes the Wall Street film villain Gordon Gekko was right and "greed is good." It is hard to come up with any other explanation given Google's flexible definition of "evil." But thousands of American and allied troops are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring repressed peoples access to more democratic institutions just as they have died to protect American freedoms in many wars before. Isn't it time Americans and their elected representatives pay more attention to their own cherished freedoms? Aren't the giant keiretsu companies that control American media too willing to suspend those freedoms wherever they interfere with their pursuit of profit?
Thomas Lipscomb (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior fellow at the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future (USC). He was the founding president of Times Books who withdrew from the Moscow Book Fair.