Stephen Logan

Google’s Acrimonious China Exit Highlights Search Engines’ Role in State Censorship

25th Mar 2010 News, Industry News 3 minutes to read

Tuesday saw Google bid a hasty retreat from their Chinese operations (all the way to neighbouring principality, Hong Kong) and into the headlines. But not everybody was as supportive of Google’s actions as President Obama.

Google began their foray into the Chinese search market back in 2006. They did so, like so many others, under the strict eye of the country’s communist regime. This included strict censorship of their results and what they were and weren’t allowed to show. Understandably, this caused widespread consternation.

For three years Google built their reputation and their share of the search market. Although the latter of these had only reached 33 percent by the time they finally pulled out on March 24th. Baidu were and still are the market leaders in China. Dominating their search with almost 63 percent of the audience. So despite the enormity of China’s populous, it wasn’t one of their primary markets.

Their exit had been mooted for some time [see: Google Threatens China Walkout | Google Readying China Withdrawal], so it came as no surprise when they budged their operation on Tuesday. But whilst many high level commentators have praised Google for withdrawing from a country that has firewalled information from its subjects, others have been less positive.

The primary issue, it seems, is Google’s (and other search engines, including Microsoft) apparent readiness to become involved in this state censorship in the first place. Whilst their withdrawal is a positive step, it can’t mask four years of subservience and tainted profits.

Danny Sullivan wrote one of the most complete and even handed criticisms of Google’s treatment as a martyr-like pariah. Writing for Search Engine Land in a piece entitled ‘So Now Google Thinks Everyone Should Care About Chinese Censorship? ‘, Sullivan states that it is too early to start commending Google. Yes they made the right decision, but perhaps they should question why they were there in the first place.

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch was a little less cordial in his own response. Criticising Google for chasing money and dragging in Facebook and Twitter for good measure in a post entitled Not Being Evil Has To Be More Than A Marketing Slogan.

Whatever your stance, the main positive to come out of this is a highlighting of state censorship. Government interference in the information available to citizens is a dangerous thing. In China, the expelling of Western cultures and the capitalist philosophy is a daily fight. This of course is echoed in nations throughout the world to varying degrees. If lessons are to be learnt from this shambles, then search engines need to be more honest in what they censor and refuse markets that hide information.

Google played along with the Chinese game a little too long. Their move to Hong Kong allowed them to maintain a presence in the Chinese speaking world, albeit with China able to cut them off and censor remotely. This is a massive loss to their potential growth, both in terms of audience and revenue.  However, they have been vocal in the past about censorship [see: Source: Google Go on the Offensive Over State-led Internet Censorship], so why has it taken so long for them to act decisevly (if it can be called such)?

Search engines should be free from tampering. Whether deliberately elevating or lowering a websites ranking or blocking whole search strands. They are a source of limitless information and an opportunity to learn, earn and inform. By becoming involved in shadier practices elsewhere in the world, it tarnishes the reputation of Google and other cohorts – again, it should be noted that Microsoft are still operating there. However by withdrawing, they have at least made the first steps towards recovery.

Search engines shouldn’t be regulated [see: Should Search Engines Be Regulated to Ensure Search Neutrality?], but they should certainly be more accountable and socially responsible. They wield a great deal of power, so becoming driven purely by economic growth rather than development for the wider society of searchers would be a dangerous thing.

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