I strongly recommend Clive Thompson's carefully researched and richly informative "Google in China: The Big Disconnect" in last Sunday's New York Times magazine. Thompson, who I just interviewed for afterTV, reveals the story behind Google's customized search engine for the Chinese market, a product that has given Google access to the 100 million Internet users in China today.
It is a peculiar story, even by the radically peculiar standards of Google.
What Google has done in China is part Orwell, part Kafka. After the Chinese government blocked the Chinese language version of Google in September 2002, it became clear that for Google to participate in the Chinese market, it had to censor its links in accordance with government ideology. But, according to Thompson, the Chinese government wouldn't give Google a list of inappropriate sites to block from the new Google.cn. So Google built its blacklist from sites already banned by the Chinese state. In other words, Google mimicked the Chinese censor. What the Beijing government censored, so Google censored. Google has become, consciously or not, an official arm of the Chinese Communist Party.
How did the Google guys justify this move? According to Thompson:
"Sergey Brin said he thought it would be years before Google would make much if any profit in China. In fact, he argued, going into China "wasn't as much a business decision as a decision about getting people information. And we decided in the end that we should make this compromise."
GETTING PEOPLE INFORMATION?
Brin is only getting Chinese people information that is approved by the Chinese government. The other information -- on Tibet, on the Tiananmen Square massacre, on Falun Gong -- is censored. So, according to Thompson, a search on Google.cn for Tiananmen Square:
"Omitted many iconic photos of the protest and the crackdown. Instead, it produced tourism pictures of the square lighted up at night and happy Chinese couples posing before it."
Remember Page and Brins's prescient open letter to potential Google investors in their April 29, 2004 IPO filing:
“Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.”
Google has certainly never been a conventional company and will probably never be one. But for Google to consciously and actively partner with the Chinese government in censoring its Internet users is beyond unconventional. It isn't good. It might even be evil.