Google China Part Three: Digging out of your hole

[This isn’t an editorial.  I am indeed a free speech activist, as any superficial historian of the First Amendment and the Internet can tell you.  But everything I say below is written from the point of view of a public affairs strategist:  Google’s in a world of trouble and it needs to repair its reputation.  -Shabbir]

Since forever, Google has played by different rules than everyone else.  They kept huge quantities of data on their users, but nobody called them on it.  The press actually gave far stricter scrutiny to people who held far less data on us than Google.  You could find anything in Google, including some things you probably shouldn’t, but they got less scrutiny for it than they probably should have.

Now the shoe’s on the other foot.  Google’s major competitor (Yahoo!) is implicated as being a tool of the Chinese oppression in getting a dissident arrested, but that gets knocked out of the headlines because Google won’t show web pages criticizing the same oppressive government.   Yahoo’s transgression is far worse, but it’s not getting the play it should because we hold Google to a higher, self-imposed standard.  By now I’m sure the founders wished they’d never uttered the sanctimonious phrase, "Don’t be evil."

By the same token, Google’s not getting any credit for the good things they’ve done.  They’ve refused to make Yahoo’s mistake and have kept mail and blogger services out of China, but nobody noticed.  They refused to comply with a US Government subpoena that Yahoo! and MSN gave into without much of a whimper of a fight, but instead of praising Google, people look for the secretive self-interested motive.  It must be because they don’t want to reveal their business secrets!  Nobody stands up and says, "Way to go Google, carrying our privacy water bucket!"

This is a bad situation.  It will become difficult to do anything leading edge in this PR environment because Google will be seen as too self-interested to do good anymore.  And while I wouldn’t say Google is being evil yet, it’s a long way down to evil, and you don’t want to be on that elevator.

Here’s what I think Google can do to fix the mess they’re in, in order of reasonableness:

1. Make us feel safer
Google has long held as it’s right the idea that they could keep every single search term and result and all of our behavior without limit.  That’s too good a bounty for law enforcement to pass up, and eventually, investigators’ requests will start to come too fast and too furious to fight.  Google needs to figure out a way to aggregate the information it keeps on us to develop a profile that is useful for targeting services and advertising, but not enough to make it attractive for the FBI to sift through in large volumes.  As long as that data is there, they’ll be fighting every Attorney General who wants them to give it over.  (If they haven’t already given it up)

There is safety in numbers, and if so many people fit a vague enough profile, it will be unreasonable for the FBI to ask.

2.  Tell us how to blow their cache
Google needs to allow us to blow the cache of data stored on us on a regular basis.  They can require us to have 30 days of data around or something similar, but not forever.  Nobody deserves that much trust.  Let Google keep the data of people too lazy to blow the cache, and let them keep the ag
gregated profiles forever.  But please Google, be honest with us about the specifics of what you’re keeping.

And now the hard one….

3.  Revamp your censorship compliance policy

The Google China flap will blow over, but unless they fix this problem, every story about Google will start with some sort of preamble like, "Google, the search engine that caught hell last year for suppressing dissident speech in China…"  Google China will become publicly acceptable criticism, and the first statement in every critique of Google.  Google shouldn’t give them that ammunition.  It’s like they’re starting the Superbowl with a 10 yard penalty.

Google needs to let the censors take responsibility for their own actions and expose the conditions that local governments impose upon them.  Then, and only then, will censorious local governments take the heat for what Google is taking now.  Believe me, if I’m looking for Nazi party materials in Google’s French portal, just because I don’t find any results doesn’t mean I don’t think Nazis exist in France.  The French government would like to think it makes it go away, but we all know better.  It just makes Google look worse for it. 

If banned sites are in the index and are just ignored, then show a blank link with a China flag.  If the banned sites are not in the index, or Google doesn’t want to show such an unhelpful search screen, mark the entire result set with a note about the fact that the results may be slimmer because of local government regulations, and give us a link to the specifics of what information is banned.  It will offload the censorship responsibility to those who are imposing it.

For Google the honeymoon is over.  It was bound to happen sometime, so no surprise there.  But it’s foolish to let Google Hubris blind them to the PR problem before it gets any worse.  Google is in the unfortunate position of being held to a higher standard than it’s competitors, while getting away with less.  This is the worst of all possible situations, but it can get a lot worse.  There are certainly some good things that Halliburton does in the business world, but you couldn’t tell that from the awful PR they’ve got now.  Google’s no Halliburton, but this is certainly how it starts: where people assume the worst about you before they even know the facts. 

And for anyone from Google who’s reading this, stop saying, "We’re not as bad as Halliburton!"   

You’re right, you’re not as bad as Halliburton.  But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a similar problem.

Fix your problems Google, I miss you.