Searching the Gray Areas of the Red China-Net

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This article was written in September 2005 but was not published at the time. In light of recent events, though, we thought it especially pertinent.

Getting a foothold in China’s explosive Internet market has proved a tricky-footed maneuver for the search engine industry. As search engines strive to reach the untapped masses within the communist borders, they are also forced to ask themselves some tough questions about just how much the laws of business ethics can be bent in trying to do so. And it’s not so easy an answer.

The dilemma is this: You have a valuable service to present to an insatiable and high-growth potential market. The catch is, though, the government allowing you access to this market is restrictive of human rights and wishes to alter your product. Procuring a presence in the market is crucial to your company’s growth, but compromising the principles the company was built upon, even if only a little, is an unpleasant ultimatum. Nothing can be done to change the situation, and at the end of the day, it becomes a matter of either you’re in business, or you’re not. The gray areas just get bigger and bigger.

The Internet industry has no doubt taken notice of the 1.3 billion customers, 125 million of whom will have Internet access by the end of 2005. The number of Chinese web surfers will be eclipsed only by the United States with its 200 million browsers.

Search engines too, which have become the posts upon which the Worldwide Web is hung, wasted little time plumbing the recesses of wherever the Yuan may collect. Almost immediately upon entering those recesses, though, each of them was faced with the murky weeds of censorship, and soon realized the price of doing business in China.

The Chinese government regulates the information available to its citizens, “protecting” them from “harmful” content. Words like “democracy” and “freedom,” demonstration,” “democratic movement,” and Taiwan independence,” are considered “anti-communist,” and Chinese content filters disallow access to any news source or website containing such “forbidden speech.”

It was made clear first to Yahoo!, and then to Google, and later to MSN, that access to any unapproved content through their search engines would be blocked. Google’s been shut down more than once. Yahoo!, which has never really had any qualms about their service actually being a business, was quick to make a pledge of self-censorship in 2002. MSN took similar measures just last month.

Google, our champion of pure search results, the leader of the industry, is under tougher scrutiny, as the eyes of the world check to see how business in China fits into their guiding philosophy. And honestly, it’s a question this writer can’t readily answer.

So I throw it to the reader with questions that college students everywhere may address in Business Ethics 101.

1. When your company prides itself on objectivity through unfiltered access to a breadth of sources reflecting all ideas and values, is it acceptable to trim a few of those ideas and values back to offer a version acceptable to a state-controlled, information-deprived populace?

2. Do the benefits of your service to the people outweigh or equal the benefits of doing business there?

3. Are repeated violations of human rights to be ignored if logic dictates that other interested parties will most certainly exploit the market, thereby denying your company’s place in that market?

4. Is the compromise or tweaking of the company’s typical value structure a reasonable sacrifice to acquire a foothold in an emerging market, the conditions in which may or may not change?

Reporters Without Borders (a.k.a. Reporters Sans Frontiers, RSF) have been vigilant on the topic. When Google announced the opening of research offices in Beijing, the RSF had this to say:

“You say the role of office you will open in China will initially be limited to researching the Chinese market. We nonetheless think you should confront certain ethical issues right from the start of this initiative. Reporters Without Borders therefore asks you to give a clear response now to the following question: will you agree to censor your search engine if asked to by Beijing?”

The human rights activist group went on to make a more pointed request regardless of the answer Google provided to the previous question.

“We simply ask you to reject self-censorship. If the Chinese authorities want to block access to certain websites, they must do it themselves. Indeed, they do block many sites. But we would find it extremely disturbing if you yourselves were to participate in the Chinese government’s policy of suppressing press freedom.”

Playboy Magazine had their own questions for Google executives Larry Page and Sergey Brin during an interview in September 2004.

PLAYBOY: How did you respond when the Chinese government blocked Google because your search engine pointed to sites it forbade, including Falun Gong and pro-democracy websites?

BRIN: China actually shut us down a couple of times.

PLAYBOY: Did you negotiate with the Chinese government to unblock your site?

BRIN: No. There was enough popular demand in China for our services-information, commerce and so forth-that the government re-enabled us.

PLAYBOY: Have you ever agreed to conditions set by the Chinese government?

BRIN: No, and China never demanded such things. However, other search engines have established local presences there and, as a price of doing so, offer severely restricted information. We have no sales team in China. Regardless, many Chinese Internet users rely on Google. To be fair to China, it never made any explicit demands regarding censoring material. That’s not to say I’m happy about the policies of other portals that have established a presence there.

Google has had a long standing, even if ill defined, policy simply stated in three words: Don’t be evil. Later in the interview, Brin admits that the corporate concept of “evil” is an evolving, fluid concept to be defined and redefined as issues arise, and adds a second, even more abstract guideline, of “be good.”

It wasn’t long after that Google’s ethics department released an official statement about the topic.

“We also considered the amount of information that would be omitted. In this case it is less than two percent of Chinese news sources. On balance we believe that having a service with links that work and omits a fractional number is better than having a service that is not available at all. It was a difficult tradeoff for us to make, but the one we felt ultimately serves the best interests of our users located in China,” the Google Team said.

By “links that work,” they are referring to the removal of links that would lead to a site blocked by the government that searchers wouldn’t be able to see anyway. Is that self-censorship? Or is it just a logical measure?

How are we to interpret, then, how Google would answer this question, initially sidestepped by Sergey Brin?

PLAYBOY What would you do if you had to choose between compromising search results and being unavailable to millions of Chinese?

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Searching the Gray Areas of the Red China-Net
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