There is such an extreme range of opinion and experience on the net that it’s easy to forget there are such things as grey areas, moral ambiguities, and decisions that are not clearly "good" or "bad." Life is not so black and white. There aren’t two ways, but a googol worth of them.
Consider Google’s decision to host servers in China for a new Chinese service. Some friends seem to claim that this is pure capitulation for purely capitalistic purposes. They lump Google in with Yahoo and Cisco and Microsoft, companies who have clearly collaborated with some arguably evil policies in China, where individuals are now in jail for purely political "crimes." Perhaps that’s fair. After all, Google is censoring some of its web pages from the Chinese people. Perhaps they’ve violated their own "don’t be evil" mantra for a quick billion bucks?
But life is not so simple. I think Google has done a piss poor job communicating the rationale for its decision, and they may deserve the result, but here are the facts as I understand them:
1. Google.com was and continues to be available in China and in Chinese, uncensored by Google.
2. Chinese ISPs, by Chinese law, filter the international feeds to prevent Google.com and other search engines from providing their full content. The result is arguably worse than censorship: redirection, misdirection, and unavailability something like 80-90% of the time.
3. To provide better service, Google put some servers inside China with a new service called Google.cn. Since the servers are physically inside China, they are not only subject to Chinese law, they and their operators are potentially at risk of confiscation and jail time, with the idea of civil disobedience through Chinese courts about as remote as Bush taking on Osama in a boxing match.
4. For the sites Google.cn does censor, they [alone?] make it clear. Meaning, when you see that message, go use Google.com if you can.
5. Unlike Yahoo!, Google.cn declined to offer any other services (like email, chat, etc..) that would require it to maintain personally identifiable information, making it [hopefully] impossible to fall into the situation of having to capitulate on Chinese investigations and land people in jail, as, say, Yahoo! has.
6. Google’s contention, still unproven, is that by providing the majority of its indexed information to Chinese citizens, they can help open things in China more than by, say, providing no service whatsoever.
I think it’s at least clear that by boycotting China, they would have served no one–China can do just fine with the next best search engine. Whether we see Google wrestled into more and more capitulation over time, or gaining enough market share to say "no" to China remains to be seen. When dancing with "evil" the danger is not that people will perceive you as such, but that you will fail to recognize when you, yourself, have crossed the line.
I don’t personally think that Google has yet crossed the line. However, Google found itself lumped in with Yahoo!, Cisco, and the like in testifying to Congress on evil misdeeds. The question I have is why? Why were these hearings put on now, and not, say, a month ago before Google made their announcement?
Some people say that it’s because their self-appointed mantra is "don’t be evil" and they should therefore be held to a higher standard. Sorry, but that’s just weak. I’d rather have a company that tries to do the right thing and fails 10% of the time than one that never tries at all. And all companies should be held to the same standard. But we should also recognize that that standard may not be the same as for individuals and governments. Google never said they would donate their profits to charity. They never said they wouldn’t serve deceptive ads (which, by definition, is most of them—why else would people buy such crap?). They’re a business and they never claimed otherwise. Basically, "don’t be evil" means "don’t be Microsoft." And for that, I’d hold them accountable*. Some people even claim that Google stock went down over this issue. But when’s the last time a stock went down for entering China? Wall St. loves making money, so that only shows how naïve some people can be.
Personally, I’d be much more likely to be on Google’s case* if they told other people how to act and then failed to follow suit, as their detractors now seem to do. How many of these vocal opponents boycott Chinese products, electronics, clothing? Or complain about the incredible US trade deficit with China? Or protest Chinese banks holding so much of the US national debt? Does the US government take action itself? Or is hypocrisy just a problem for other people?
Back to the question of "why?" Google. The thing to remember is that Google did take a stand against a government — the US government. They’re fighting the Justice Department over private search data, today generic records, tomorrow who knows?
So was there any connection? Consider that the Republican-controlled committee that took this action, is proposing a publicity-seeking bill that would somehow require overseas operators to follow US laws. Some of these republicans, even the ones on the Human Rights committee, are of the "flag burning is a capital offense" "no choice for women" variety, with no clear record on civil rights in the US or abroad. Could it be that the Bush Administration is applying pressure through surrogates? It’s not like the Bush Administration ever uses tactics like that, turning their opponent’s strengths into weaknesses, good into bad, war hero into coward and coward into hero. No. Google stands up to government invasion of privacy == Google is untrustworthy. It’s classic double-speak.
To lump Google in with Yahoo! or Cisco is to let those other companies off the hook for what are clearly egregious acts. And now we have people using Tom Lantos—one of the few voices on that committee who is actually consistently against human rights violations no matter the source, who is also a Holocaust survivor—as a kind of measuring stick to imply that these companies are somehow equivalent to the companies who colluded with Nazi Germany (one of which was one run by Bush’s grandfather…). Slave Labor. Confiscation of Property. Concentration Camps. Genocide.
Free Speech is vital for Democracy. It’s very important to me personally. But there is no moral equivalence between censorship and slave labor or genocide. If anything, sweatshop conditions are a much closer analogy. Where was Nike in those hearings? Or Wal*Mart?
People who will use any opportunity to tout their cause, even at the expense of truth, serve no one but themselves. At least that’s my take.
* disclaimer: I do own some Google stock (leftover from the Keyhole sale), but would sell it in an instant if I thought they crossed the line.