June 10, 2006

Google, China, and Ethics

Greetings. Given all of the other news last week, some interesting and potentially important statements by Google co-founder Sergey Brin went largely unnoticed, and I believe that they are worth highlighting here briefly.

While he was in Washington D.C. promoting the Google view on network neutrality issues (which I support), Sergey made some comments about the continuing controversy regarding the censored version of Google for China. Word is that the vast majority of Chinese users still (attempt) to use the uncensored version of Google, to the extent that this is not blocked by Chinese authorities (as of late, this blocking has apparently become largely ubiquitous).

As we know, Google's censored version has been highly controversial since it was announced earlier this year, and collected considerable criticism at various levels, including from me, as in:

Google's Search Query Log Battle vs. China Censoring -- Perceptions Matter!

Remarks that Sergey made in D.C. suggest that a reevaluation of Google's participation in the censored version of Google for China may be in the offing. Sergey reiterated a stance that we know from the project's launch:

"We felt that perhaps we could compromise our principles but provide ultimately more information for the Chinese and be a more effective service and perhaps make more of a difference."

However, he added the following key statement:

"Perhaps now the principled approach makes more sense ... It's perfectly reasonable to do something different, to say, 'Look, we're going to stand by the principle against censorship and we won't actually operate there.' That's an alternate path. It's not where we chose to go right now, but I can sort of see how people came to different conclusions about doing the right thing."

While this is obviously not a promise of changes, and in fact we're told that Google is trying to improve the censored service before deciding about such a potential change of course, I am very pleased to see Sergey bringing these controversial aspects of the issue directly and personally into the public view, something that most persons at Sergey's level in many other firms would be loathe to do. Sergey is to be congratulated for these comments.

These are complex issues, with vast numbers of users and very large amounts of money at stake. Google has stockholders who understandably want the best possible value for their money.

Yet Google has positioned itself in a very unique way. Sergey noted that Google's rivals accommodated the same Chinese demands ("a set of rules that we weren't comfortable with") without the same sort of international criticism. But people simply expect Google to lead in the ethical corporate arena, and any perceived shortcomings (whether real or not) will be magnified in the public reaction.

Sergey also noted how limited the safeguards are on the personal information in electronic systems:

"I think it's interesting that the expectations of people with respect to what happens to their data seems to be different than what is actually happening."

I agree, and I again hope that Google will push to lead in this area, as I suggested in:

An Open Letter to Google: Concepts for a Google Privacy Initiative

Putting on my "Jiminy Cricket" hat for a second though, a common thread that runs through so many of these issues is as old as mankind: "Let your conscience be your guide."

I assert that with ethical questions -- even when large corporations and billions of dollars are at stake -- in the long run, following what your heart tells you is right will rarely lead you astray. In many cases, the goodwill engendered will actually result in new economic benefits, perhaps in ways that weren't originally imagined.

I plead guilty to sounding a bit simplistic when it comes to ethics. But while ethical questions may be complex, the answers often are not, at least if we're being completely honest about ourselves and our priorities. This may be the single concept of the most importance that I've learned in my life -- for what it's worth.

And that's why I was pleased to see a bit of public soul-searching on these issues by Sergey. It's potentially a good sign for Google, and for the rest of us as well.


Posted by Lauren at June 10, 2006 03:56 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein