Google China Part Two: Complying with the law

The criticism of Google’s China version is emotion-filled but accurate.  I don’t mean to imply that a lot of smart and caring people at Google didn’t think hard about a way out of this quandry, only that they chose to draw the line in the wrong place.

If you read enough editorials, the critics’ arguments break down into a few main issues:

  • Google doesn’t say what things local laws prohibit it from showing
  • Google doesn’t tell you what it is hiding from you

Ultimately, nobody thinks that Google is resposible for the political oppression of the Chinese (and Tibetan and Hong Kong), they just don’t think that any self-respecting Western company should be complicit in it.  It isn’t as if this problem didn’t come up before, France and Germany prohibit the display of Nazi materials and Google has complied with their wishes in the same way.

I believe this uncovers the first great mistake Google made: adapting a censorship compliance policy from a Western nation to a globally-recognized repressive state.   This was a big misjudgement of public perception.  To think that what was appropriate for Germany and France would be appropriate for China, or even acceptable to their Western supporters is dead wrong.  As an aside, I suspect Google will start to take increasing heat for their Germany/France censorship policies.

The second great mistake is actually not a Google China mistake, but in fact a mistake in the architecture of their censorship compliance system: they hid the truth.  Censors are only effective in an environment in which they can make things disappear, Orwell style.  Banning a book, such as Lolita, only increases it’s value when people see that it has been banned.  Erasing all mention of the book and pretending like it never existed, is the only effective way of conducting censorship.

We’ve seen this in the Internet-filtering wars.  The Internet filters hide their list of blocked sites jealously.  China is the same way.  The Falun Gong doesn’t exist.  SARS doesn’t exist.   Only by denying the existence of the thing, can it effectively be censored.

And therein lies the heart of Google’s mistake.  By acting as the country censor, and carrying through their wish to see materials not exist, they have taken on the moral errors of the governments they hope to influence.  Were they simply to display results that say, "Local laws prevent us from displaying some information about Falun Gong" they would put the responsibility of censorship back on the government.   By choosing to hide the results this, they have taken on the sins of the local governments by being their bad actors.  Writing such bad policies into the actual Google code is something they should have forseen.  Larry Lessig has explained this very well in Code.  (go read the damn preface)

Tomorrow I’ll explain how I think Google can fix the mess they’re in, and some different options they could have pursued for avoiding the problem in the first place.  I’m conscious of the fact that I’m armchair quarterbacking, so I’ll be clear about ways out of this dilemna they can take now.