Google and the Pragmatic Idealist Response

Google has made an unprecedented threat to end the censorship of its search results in China and, if this is unacceptable to the Chinese government, even contemplate leaving the Chinese market. The announcement has been combined with the admission that there has been a massive coordinated attack on Google’s security and the potential targeting of private records of human rights activists.

It remains to be seen what Google will actually do in the near future. I am inspired to post something about this unusual moment in order to make two comments. First, I wish to respond to a kind of cynical reaction to Google’s announcement that I find frustrating. Second, I wish to argue that this is an opportunity for anyone who wants to see a China which one day permits the open, free, and competitive exchange of ideas. As such we need to think about how to amplify its potential impact.

The Google announcement has deservedly generated a huge response, even though it coincides roughly with the terrible news of the destruction in Haiti. The reactions are many, and I’m particularly interested in the variety of responses among Chinese which so far seem to range from complete shock, quiet or vocal support for Google, or a misguided anti-imperialist attitude of “good riddance.”

One of the responses I find incredibly unproductive. Two representative examples can be seen in this Techcrunch article and a posting by Evgeny Morozov at Foreign Policy. Their message is essentially a cynical one: It is foolish for us to pour praise on Google for what deceptively seems like a just moral stance – the corporation is merely acting out of pure calculated greed.

This is, in my opinion, a complete waste of words, an unnecessary attempt to dampen enthusiasm about what is potentially, but by no means guaranteed to be, a historic moment. No one should be surprised to discover that corporations act in the interest of their profits and shareholder benefits. No one should be surprised to learn that Google is doing a cost-benefit calculation with relation to its future in the Chinese market and we still don’t know what its final fate in China will be. These things should merely be accepted as the, “bloody obvious.”

Which brings me to my second point: what are we going to do about? What potential impact, if any, can this have on a cause many of us care about?

Pragmatic Idealism

I couldn’t give a shit about the profits of Google, or what its real motivations are. I do care, however, what the reactions of the Chinese people are to this and what marginal influence this move can have on efforts within China to change the information environment in the near and the long term.

From that perspective, it is not obvious that Google dropping censorship and withdrawing from the Chinese market is in the best interests of freedom of information in China, even if it were followed by all other foreign companies. If the internet environment in China is dominated completely by Chinese companies who are perfectly willing to censor all of its content, this may result in a worse situation than one in which foreign search engines and some international social and media websites have limited, if censored, presence in China, with even a small percentage of the market share there. Coming from someone who studies traitors and treason, this seems to me to be the classic collaborator’s dilemma: will collaboration limit the damage? Will resistance result in a worse outcome?

The answer is not always that resistance is better – sometimes collaboration is better. Sometimes negotiating with evil produces more good. Sometimes subversion hidden behind compliance is the path to take. These things should be carefully evaluated according to circumstances. Clearly, however, in some cases resistance is the better choice and can move things perceivably towards a desired end.

The answer is not obvious, but I think in this case, if Google were to take a stand, it would matter: despite its low market share, Google has made a splash on the Chinese market, and young Chinese engineers and educated people all over the country recognize and respect the company – many of them dream sincerely of one day working at the corporation. Even some Chinese friends who use the competitor Baidu are disgusted with its corrupt history of manipulation of hits to promote advertising revenues, its occasionally substandard results (sometimes even with Chinese search terms!) and lack of innovation.

Having made its mark, having a well known brand, and then suddenly withdrawing in a blaze of glory—and while withdrawing for a short time removing censorship from its search results: at the very least this will likely produce a memorable reaction: some in China will feel shame, and others will embrace a defiance. Those who are defiant will be forced into the ridiculous position of claiming, “Ha! Be gone stupid imperialistic western company – if you refuse to hide things from us like our dictatorship tells you to, then you are just selfishly giving into those superior companies who are willing to be more submissive to our glorious Party and ever more powerful, if castrated, Nation.” Those who feel shame, will be reminded, yet again, of the contrast between what they are permitted to see, what they may see when they climb over the great firewall, and what most of the rest of the wired world can see, with a few notable exceptions.

However, this isn’t and shouldn’t be up to Google. It is up to us to make it matter: not by hailing Google for its courage, or setting up fan clubs for Google co-founder Sergey Brin. We should ask ourselves how we can maximize the impact of the decision, if Google follows through with it, to say no to collaboration with Chinese censors, then let us see if we can amplify the impact of that decision. There is now a brief moment of opportunity, a time when we can make something like this matter. Instead of cynically deriding Google for merely acting in its own interests, we should be debating how we might best amplify the impact of such a decision while minimizing the similar amplification of a Chinese nationalistic backlash that will inevitably accompany it. The goal is simple: to make the contradictions so obvious to many within China just that much clearer, to make the hypocrisies pointed out by activists within China that much easier to identify, and to increase the discomfort felt by Chinese government as well as institutions both foreign and domestic. It may result in only one of a “thousand cuts” in the farce that is Chinese media and internet policies, but that is how change is accomplished.

2 thoughts on “Google and the Pragmatic Idealist Response”

  1. Hey Mitch!

    Good read… I’ve been following the Google/China kerfuffle a fair bit over here. The coverage has been fairly decent on this end, but was surprised to learn how little Goog has managed to penetrate into the Chinese market. Was just wondering if you had a feel on how the numbers fall as far as the public sentiment towards Google.


  2. That is a good question. I asked a Chinese friend of mine today who has been following this closely but even she admitted that there is just no easy way to measure the reaction.

    The penetration of the market is low in terms of percentage, but those who use it tend to the educated elites in the country, which is interesting.

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