Google’s China Syndrome

(originally posted on Tuesday, March 23, 2010)

There’s been a little tug-of-war going on between Google.cn (Google in China) and the Peoples’ Republic of China. The world’s most powerful search engine has been battling the government of the world’s most populous country over their requirement that Google.cn must utilize content-censoring software that filters out any information the Chinese government finds objectionable.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, as the Chinese government has long practiced censorship, mainly to crack down on the spread of ideas relating to human rights. Google.cn had complied for a while with this requirement (as have Microsoft’s Bing, and Apple Computers who restricted Chinese access to any apps related to the Dalai Lama), but recently they took a principled stand.

They moved Google.cn to Hong Kong, just off the Chinese mainland but light years away in terms of freedom, in an attempt to conduct business openly. While they did in fact violate their agreement with the Chinese government, the move signals a core belief that information is out there, it is free, and it can’t be stopped.

Critics argue that Google.cn’s business is dwarfed by China’s own search engine, Baidu.com, and that revenue from Google.cn accounts for only 1% of Google’s global revenue, so it was easy for them to do this. Supporters of the move say that businesses with a conscience will win in the end.

So we want to know: should a company’s altruistic principles trump a country’s laws—even those that are condemned by the rest of the world? Did Google do the right thing, or are they merely thumbing their noses at the Chinese government?