Google strikes a blow for free speech in China

Google strikes a blow for free speech in China

Espousing journalistic values like openness and access, Google has quit the largest internet market

Google executives struck a blow for free speech in China last week when they announced they were moving their service to Hong Kong after a series of mounting conflicts with the government over the privacy of its users and the free flow of information.

That would seem to put Google in league with newspapers, television news divisions and other outlets that look to protect information from government control. But no, Google insists, it is definitely not a media company.

“We are not interested in owning or creating content,” the company says whenever the subject comes up.

But regardless of how it defines itself, Google has come to grips with its role as both enabler and protector of the global exchange of information. After making several business moves that gave many observers pause — including what many saw as a land grab in books and its dealing with Chinese authorities in the first place — Google made a decision that represents an opportunity for the company to walk its talk about not being evil.

By espousing traditional journalistic values like openness, transparency and access, the company is walking away from the largest internet market on the planet in the hope of putting pressure on China’s government.

“This represents a return to principles, and it might go some way toward convincing people that they have not gone over to the dark side,” said Andrew Lih, visiting professor of journalism and director of new media at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

That’s not to say Google doesn’t see this as good business ultimately: The company wants consumers to believe its searches are free from commercial and political agendas. But it’s notable that while Nike, Coca-Cola and even General Motors have made significant progress in China in the last few decades, media companies like the News Corp, Viacom and Time Warner all have very little to show for years of investment and dialogue. As my colleague Tim Arango wrote last year, many were pulling up their stakes, frustrated by censorship, corruption and strict limits on what they could do.

Google has shied away from the media label, and for good reason. Already, Italian courts have held three Google executives criminally liable in an invasion of privacy case over an offensive video on YouTube. Among other arguments, the courts held that because Google monitors and censors search results in China, it could be expected to observe community standards in Italy. Australia, South Korea and other countries are also looking to Google to exercise editorial control over its web products.

But while Google has positioned itself in court as a global utility — a company that brings smart results from dumb pipes — it does more than search. Its results pages support a lucrative advertising business. The Google News service is a go-to source for consumers, and 24 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. And the company is undertaking a vast effort to serve as a searchable repository for scanned books.

Media company

As recently as 2007, Google’s chief, Eric Schmidt, told Ken Auletta, the New Yorker writer and the author of ‘Googled’, that “One day, Google could become a $100 billion media company — more than twice the size of Time Warner, the Walt Disney Co or News Corp.”

Fearing it might put its media partners’ teeth on edge, the company has since tacked away from talk like that, but its dominion over content has only grown.

“It just shows that in a converging world, there are no hard and fast lines,” Lih added. “When Google indexes the web and returns content in the context of who they rank first, their claims aside, they inherently become a media company. They are crucial to the media ecosystem.”

In China, Google and other internet companies act as virtual publishers for millions of people using the internet to connect with others and to question the excesses of their government. In a sense, Google is championing the rights of all the citizens of the internet kingdom.

“The state likes to have intermediaries: media companies that have large investments to protect,” said Clay Shirky, professor of new media at New York University. “But when everyone is capable of being a publisher, the state has far less control.”

The company was extremely aggressive in telling its story about why it was leaving mainland China. In speaking to James Fallows at The Atlantic about the decision, David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, did not mince words. “It seemed to us that this was all part of an overall system bent on suppressing expression, whether it was by controlling internet search results or trying to surveil activists,” he said.

“It is all part of the same repressive programme. We felt that we were being part of that.”

The big announcement had yet to be made last Monday when Sergey Brin, a founder of Google, stopped by our office for what had been billed as a cup of coffee. We chatted a bit about this and that, before the subject of China came up and he let me know that the company was moving its operations to Hong Kong and would no longer be in the business of censoring results at the behest of the People’s Republic of China.

Although Brin hardly conducted himself as a media executive — he had no big entourage and answered every question forthrightly — he certainly espoused values the business holds dear. He explained that Google had entered China in good faith in 2006 and had been worn down by a lack of good faith in return.

Brin clearly felt strongly as he talked about how the Chinese government — or agents acting in its interests — tried to track and monitor dissidents by hacking Gmail accounts.
“It was the last straw,” he said, pointing out that he and his family were visited repeatedly by the police before they left the Soviet Union when he was 6 years old.

Google obviously has a big business interest in protecting the sanctity of its e-mail accounts. But as he spoke, Brin reminded me a lot of the people I have worked for as a journalist, who take as an article of faith that they will protect me and my sources regardless of who comes after us.

Running a media company requires a set of values that selling a can of soda or a pair of sneakers doesn’t. So Google, which held itself to a higher standard last week, can expect to get hammered any time it falls short in the future. Google may or may not be a media company, but people will expect it to act like one.