Soul Searching: Google's position on China might be many things, but moral it is not

image003“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.”John F. Kennedy

How exciting! Google has issued a statement saying it’s un-censoring its search results in China! And it’s threatening to pull out of the country completely, in retaliation for an alleged (and, we’re led to infer, government-backed) attempt to hack the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents!

As a tech story, it has all the makings of a classic diplomacy thriller; a modern-day Cuban Missile Crisis with Google as Adlai Stevenson, waving photos of hacked emails at China’s Valerian Zorin. “Don’t wait for the translation! Just answer yes or no!” Meanwhile, Google slowly provocatively moves photos of Tiananmen tanks back onto its Chinese image search.

Unsurprisingly for such a bold move, Google’s statement – that it would no longer be bowing to Chinese censorship, having spent four years doing precisely that – has sparked debate amongst my esteemed friends and colleagues in the blogosphere.

On one side, Robert Scoble has congratulated Google, almost unconditionally. “Google has EVERY INCENTIVE to kiss Chinese ass,” he says, “that’s why this move today impressed me so much.” And to those who say that Google’s behavior to date has been overly sympathetic to the Chinese government? Um, he’s sorry…

“Um, I’m sorry, but when I visited China I heard from many people that of the American companies Google didn’t play the game as well as, say, Yahoo or Microsoft. Remember Yahoo? Remember what they turned over to the Chinese government? When I worked at Microsoft I saw them play footsie with the Chinese government too. Heck, the Chinese president visited Microsoft’s campus when I worked there and got a red-carpet welcome. Why? Because China is a HUGE market and a HUGE supplier of labor that builds Microsoft’s products. It doesn’t matter to me that Google played footsie up until today, either. They were the first to stop playing footsie and THAT deserves a HUGE round of applause.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the debate is TechCrunch’s own Sarah Lacy whose take is pretty well summed up by the title of her post “Google’s China Stance: More about Business than Thwarting Evil“. She asks…

“Does anyone really think Google would be doing this if it had top market share in the country? For one thing, I’d guess that would open them up to shareholder lawsuits. Google is a for-profit, publicly-held company at the end of the day. When I met with Google’s former head of China Kai-fu Lee in Beijing last October, he noted that one reason he left Google was that it was clear the company was never going to substantially increase its market share or beat Baidu. Google has clearly decided doing business in China isn’t worth it, and are turning what would be a negative into a marketing positive for its business in the rest of the world.”

So who is right? The Economist seems to be siding with Sarah, quoting her in a piece bearing the punderfully British title ‘Google errs‘. Meantime Robert has support from search expert Danny Sullivan and a Google Spokesperson who writes “This is not about market share. While our revenues from China are really immaterial, we did just have our best ever quarter [in China].”

The truth is I don’t know who precisely why Google made its decision. I wasn’t in the room when it was discussed. But here’s one thing I do know: anyone who is applauding Google for taking a stand against censorship needs – ironically – to sit the hell down and shut the hell up.

For four years, Google complied with the Chinese government’s demands that they censor search results. It did this in the hope of becoming the number one search engine in China, a goal it failed to achieve. You can argue – reasonably – that there’s nothing wrong with Google operating under the laws of a country, much as eBay is banned from listing Nazi memorabilia in Germany. Self-censorship is the cost of doing business in China, and it’s a price that Google decided was worth paying. Or you can take completely the opposite view: calling Google evil for ever setting foot in Beijing.

But whatever your view, you have to accept that Google spent four years, and earned vast sums of money, operating under China’s censorship laws. And now only when they suffer an attack that threatens to damage their business worldwide – “What? The communists can hack my Gmail?” – have they suddenly found a conscience.

This may be a case of scorched-earth diplomacy on the part of Google, it may just be pure retaliation against a government which tried to hack their servers or it may be a shrewd business move dressed up as “taking a stand”. But what it’s absolutely not is a “moral position”, nor one that they should be particularly applauded for, any more than a man who has spend four years beating his wife should be applauded when he decides to stop. If anyone should be applauded it’s the man who didn’t beat his wife in the first place: companies like Twitter and Facebook whose refusal to work with the Chinese government lead to them being blocked last July.

Taking a moral position four years too late – whether you’re the first or the last to do so – is like suddenly declaring that you oppose the Iraq war now you’re no longer standing for the Senate or renouncing your own steroid abuse once you’ve retired from professional sports. Which is to say, it’s taking no moral position at all.