Monday, January 30, 2006

Defending Google on China

I've always been a big fan of Google, and the company's action in regards to opening its new China search portal certainly made me want to find out what the whole deal was. I read too many pieces condemning Google outright for any concessions made to the Chinese government; I read too many sanctimonious pieces explaining how Google has betrayed it's users and fans around the world. More than all that, I've read too much from Google about how its motto is that a business can make a profit without doing evil and seen how for Google, this is not just a meaningless phrase, but a way of doing business--from offering free products to producing the best results for customers, Google is more than just a business. It represents a way of doing business. And so, I was wary when I began to read all these bloggers and columnists and congressmen deciding that Google had betrayed its values.

Sebastian Mallaby in the WPost

After I did a bit of research, I found that I was at least partially right. A great column in the Washington Post makes a great case for why Google's engagement with China is not just good business, but the best decision the company could have made for the Chinese people. He explains that Google stands out for it's nuanced position on China:

Google's answer to the China dilemma is better, and more subtle, than that of other Internet firms. It does not simply assert that engagement with China is always good. It recognizes the arms race between China's repressive state power and China's liberating economic growth, and it accepts the conclusion that follows: Some forms of engagement hasten liberal trends; others empower jailers.

Sebastian Mallaby, the author of the piece, then goes on to compare how Google tried to ensure that its service would be a positive force in China--making sure that it would not be in a position like Yahoo! was where the company tracked down a democracy activist through its e-mail; making sure that Google would not be helping to create the Great Firewall of China as Cisco Systems did. Google has agreed to engage with China, but not to aid the government in oppressing its people. A small but important concession Google extracted from the government was that users would be notified if information they were searching for was withheld:

Google has negotiated the right to disclose, at the bottom of its Chinese search results, whether information has been withheld -- a disclosure that may prompt users to repeat their search using google.com instead of google.cn. Of course, the second search might be frustrated by Cisco's routers. But disclosing censorship is half the battle. If people know they are being brainwashed, then they are not being brainwashed.

It's a good op-ed piece overall, and worth a read. And it reinforces my growing suspicion of all "purists" who oppose compromise or engagement in all spheres of public life. So many of those people who were quick to declare that Google had gone over to the dark side reeked of that streak of Puritanism that Rebecca Solnit identified as one of the scourges of the left.

Contemporary Puritanism

That is certainly one of my obsessions--contemporary Puritanism in general, and especially in politics. Puritanism is not the most accurate term, but it is a useful one within the American context. More specifically I am referring to fundamentalists, traditionalists, orthodox, reactionaries, neo-conservatives, radicals--people of both the left and right, atheists and believers who adopt a "purist" approach politics and other human endeavors--an approach I believe is, in the end, a denial of what it means to be human.

And this entry must end here as the new family puppy is calling my name--that is, barking incessantly.

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