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Privacy, free speech and Google

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 17, 2006
(Issue 2407, Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie)

Last week in this space, we questioned Google's altruism in refusing to comply with a federal subpoena of aggregate search data. (The White House says it needs the information to see if search engines' own content filters really prevent children from inadvertently finding porn online.)

In refusing to comply with the subpoena – a subpoena Yahoo and MSN had seen no problem with obeying – Google claimed its users' privacy was at risk. Which was ironic on at least two fronts: The feds said they didn't request personally identifying information, just aggregate results, and privacy activists have been on Google's case for years trying to get the company to detail how it stores and uses the personally identifying information it harvests from all our searches.

Adding – deeply – to the irony was the fact that a few days after the bit dog-and-pony show to announce its defiance of the federal subpoena (which did garner it some praise from previously hostile privacy activists), Google admitted it had struck a deal with the Chinese government to adhere to the Communist regime's list of banned sites in order to get a foothold in the Chinese online world.

The reaction has been one of deep disappointment in a company only recently admired for its adherence to principles of free speech and corporate citizenship.

While Democrats are busy promising an investigation into the White House subpoenas (the White House being controlled by a Republican these days), Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) is scheduling hearings into Google's cozy little deal with China (perhaps to divert attention from the Democratic investigation).

Regardless of which side makes more hay, Google is finding itself in the bright glare of publicity that is less than flattering.

What cost success?

At least one Wall Street analyst was reported on the MarketWatch Web site to say that the negative publicity is likely to cost Google more in lost U.S. traffic (and subsequent drop in advertising revenue) than it makes in China for a long time to come.

Clearly, Google is gambling that all those Chinese eyeballs need a search engine to use, no matter how limited. And it's not exactly as if the Chinese are used to unfiltered search results, anyway. (Although Google's agreement with the Chinese authorities also means it won't be offering Gmail or blogs, either.) If you live in mainland China, you presumably know better than to do a search for Tiannamen Square or the Falun Gong movement – much less pornography. And you know better than to complain about it, too.

Of course, with Yahoo and MSN also having signed similar deals with China, there isn't exactly an abundance of U.S.-based search engines willing to put the principle of free speech above the bottom line.

So where are disgruntled American consumers to turn?

Perhaps it will simply result in an overall drop in use of search engines. Or perhaps old favorites like LookSmart or Excite will regain popularity. (AltaVista is now owned by and powered by Yahoo, so using it gains one no freedom from the supposed sins of Yahoo.)

Or maybe it won't matter

It's also entirely possible that Americans – and their brethren in the Western Hemisphere who live in democratic societies – will simply end up forgetting that Google abandoned every precept of decency and openness in making its deal with the Chinese government.

Americans are notoriously blasé about their own freedoms and rights; worrying about someone else's has never been top of our list.

Maybe from a corporate, bottom-line point of view Google did the right thing in selling out the interests of a billion Chinese citizens in order to gain approved access to their eyeballs. While most Chinese are not yet online, the population of China is still three times that of the United States – as China continues to emerge economically, more and more of its citizens will be online in the years to come. And they will want a way to find airline tickets, look up homework assignments and find a recipe the kids aren't burned out on yet.

And as long as they don't want to learn about something as unimportant as, say, democracy, Google's Chinese search engine should suit them just fine.