In launching Google.cn on January 25th, the beloved search engine caved in to the Chinese government’s demand that it block politically “sensitive” content from searches. Now, if a Chinese web surfer wants to learn, for instance, about the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, he will find 13,600 pages of government-sanctioned myths–with 1,566,400 pages, those containing the politically dangerous truth, omitted.
Critics have expressed disappointment at what they view as the company’s blatant breach of principles. “Don’t be evil,” Google’s company motto, is now chanted by many of Google’s opponents, who decry its “profit-driven” collusion with a depraved, freedom-squelching regime.
But the critics get it backwards. The evil of Google.cn will not garner a large profit for Google; it will undercut the company’s profit-making capacity, in the long run.
To see that, one need only study the story of Google’s success. A decade after its birth, the Google brand has morphed into a common household verb. We no longer search for information; we google it. Unlike other search engines, whose confusing and inefficiently sorted search results were often met with resentment by weary users, Google has earned the loving trust of its customers. Like a close friend, it stands by to answer our burning questions on every subject, quickly, simply, reliably.
Google’s founders attempt to explain the unique aura of trust hovering over their company’s brand by brandishing their “Don’t be evil” motto. According to Google’s “Philosophy page,” this refers primarily to Google’s policy of not “biasing” search results with irrelevant paid ads or bombarding its users with cumbersome pop-ups. Allegedly, Google resists the temptation to “do evil,” unlike other IT companies, by refusing to put profits above service to its users.
In reality, however, Google’s search methodology distinguishes Google not because it is less “evil,” but because it is a more effective business model–given that Google’s product is information, and a separation of ads from search content is the most effective way to ensure that users can instantly access the information they are looking for.
Google’s revolutionary search algorithm was designed to sort results along parameters that maximize the results’ credibility and relevance to the user. Recognizing that their search formula is the most reliable, user-centered way of sorting information, the Google execs refused to tamper with it. Even when they could barely stay financially afloat in 1999, and investors pressured them to accept the then-popular advertising model promoted by Overture, Inc. (which provided ads masked as search results to Yahoo, AOL and others), Brin and Page refused–choosing to preserve the integrity of results generated by their algorithm.
Unfortunately, in their conception of paid ads and pop-ups as “evil,” Google’s founders have failed to articulate the wider moral principle underlying their business genius: the integrity of remaining committed long-term to a standard they know is good. After inventing their new search method and trying it on the Stanford populace, Page and Brin identified a fact about their search engine: because it organized information usefully and reliably, seekers of information would come to prefer it; therefore, it would make money. With that fact in mind, Page and Brin had no trouble resisting “quick cash” temptations that would compromise the formula and ultimately breach users’ trust–thereby curtailing Google’s long-term profits. Yet they continued to decry the “evil” of “profit-hungry” tactics like ads and pop-ups, ignoring the fact that their method yielded a vastly larger profit, in the long-term, than Yahoo’s or InfoSeek’s pragmatic tinkering with search results.
If Google understood the moral principle that renders their long-term approach to business so successful, they would know the disastrous implications–and genuine evil–of fraternizing with China.
Consider, as just one projected effect, the consequences of Google.cn on Google’s long-term business strategy: their adherence to the search formula that has set them apart since their inception. After years of refusing on principle to tamper with the algorithm, Google is now smearing its basic methodology of user-oriented, “unbiased” search with the stark opposite: filtering of information according to political decree. Google’s mission will now be divided between impartial dissemination of the truth and cosmetic manufacturing of lies. The Chinese customers Google is targeting so hungrily will now experience a lame, fragmented Google. It is not only the government that Chinese users will now distrust; it is Google, whose technicians and programmers will be in charge of excising forbidden information. Accordingly, Western users are already buzzing about Google’s “sell-out” to the Chinese; for a brand that distinguishes itself as a “different kind of company,” Google stands to poison its reputation with this mealy-mouthed move.
If Google applied the same principled approach to its dealings in China that it has applied (up to now) to its search sorting, it would see that no long-term corporate strategy is possible in China–a country where government thugs can capriciously intrude into a corporation’s affairs at any moment, for any reason.
If Google’s owners thought in principles, they could have taken a lesson, for instance, from the recent Yukos scandal in the semi-dictatorship of Putin’s Russia: when the ex-KGB President seized control of the giant oil company on a vicious impulse, throwing its CEO in prison, American investors lost millions of dollars in a single day.
By throwing its search engine to the winds of the Chinese government’s political dictates, Google stands to lose not only the money it is investing in China, if the government should decide to shut down Google’s headquarters, or seize its ad revenues; Google’s presence in China may just as easily result in physical harm to both its own employees and to Chinese citizens whose private information the government can access with Google’s help.
Lest you think this is mere ugly conjecturing: two years after Yahoo!’s venture into China, the company became so entangled in Communist bureaucracy that it facilitated the arrest of dissident journalist Shi Tao, by inadvertently divulging his e-mail address to the government. Instead of successfully “exploiting the Chinese market,” Yahoo! raised hell from the media and probably lost buyers’ confidence via the scandal; now Google, whose success is particularly contingent on its chaste reputation, stands to fall into the same pit.
Google invented and subsequently stayed loyal to its algorithm in order to achieve a certain long-term end: to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible,” making billions of dollars on the value of that information. But when a company is not free to decide how to run its business, the long-term is an unknowable void that government bureaucrats can fill with any mishmash of mandates and intrusions that they wish. This freedom-squelching power–not pop-ups or flashy ads–is true evil.
In fact, a company can act morally only by exercising integrity: by adhering to a policy that furthers its long-term purpose. An internet company has every right to organize its search results according to relevance or according to ad revenues or any other way that serves its purpose; the prerequisite, however, is precisely that they have a right to do it. Because Google has risen to flourish in a free Western society, it was able to adhere to its principle of relevance-based information without hindrance from parties who disagree with them. In China, Google has surrendered that right. Now they are impotent to uphold any professional principle, as capricious Chinese tyrants always stand poised to thwart it.
If Google understood the power of moral integrity, it would uphold its right to dispense its product–information–without restraint. And it might realize how much greater a benefit could be garnered, in the long run, by launching an information campaign: by, indeed, bombarding its users with large banners, company-sponsored statements, and press releases proclaiming the evil of China’s regime. Google wields an unrivalled power to disseminate information fast and far. If Google employed that power to uphold freedom rather than bolster dictatorship, the world would listen. Then Google might come to symbolize a truly idealistic and reputable company to its customers.
Gena Gorlin is a sophomore enrolled at Tufts University and the New England Conservatory.