By standing up to China, Google returns to its roots

Google's decision to stop censoring search results in China, despite Chinese government demands, is reminiscent of the company's founding principles.

Andy Wong/AP
A security guard tries to stop a man who is lighting a candle atop the Google logo outside the Google China headquarters in Beijing Tuesday. Google Inc. stopped censoring the Internet for China by shifting its search engine off the mainland Monday, but said it will maintain other operations in the country.

Google’s recent decision to stop censoring search results in China is very … Google.

Or, perhaps, more accurately, it’s very old-school Google.

The company announced Monday that it would redirect Chinese search inquiries to Hong Kong servers to avoid censoring search results, as is mandated by the Chinese government.

It’s the type of bold corporate maneuvering that has historically been the core of the Mountainview, Calif., company’s brand – the successful marriage of smart business and social good. It’s the basis of the company’s unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil," included in its code-of-conduct documents.

“Google is a company that really does sincerely try to do good,” says Paul Saffo, a fellow at the Media X program at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. “But it’s also created a business model were it does well by doing good, or at least it does well by not doing evil.”

It’s the very reason that many cried afoul when Google announced in 2006 that it would to censor search results in order to comply with Chinese mandates and gain access to the vast Chinese internet market.

For many, that decision was very un-Google.

“Initially, what [this move] does is erase the stain of 2006,” says Larry Downes, author of the newly published book, “Laws of Disruption,” which looks at legal regulation of technology in the last 10 years. “I think [Google] now recognizes that it was a mistake, or that’s it’s become a mistake in light of subsequent developments, to cooperate with the Chinese government on censoring.”

The do-no-evil slogan is “about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can,” Google writes in its code of conduct. “But it's also about doing the right thing more generally – following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.”

But in China, following Chinese law meant that Google could not fulfill its stated mission of supplying “unbiased” information.

That changes Google’s fundamental product, says Mr. Saffo.

“A censored version of Google isn’t really Google,” says Saffo. “It’s like China telling Ferrari they could only sell cars that go 60 miles per hour – it wouldn’t be a Ferrari.”

The company hasn't walked away from China completely. Its Google Search, Google News, and Google Images products are now hosted in Hong Kong. Its other products, including Gmail, are still hosted in China.

The company will benefit from staying true to its original product and from the public-relations points it gains from standing up to China.

Both inside and outside China, the company gets "cool points" for that, says Saffo.

That boost is something executives probably would have anticipated and even planned on in formulating their decision.

“You have to acknowledge, from a business standpoint, it cost them very little to walk away,” says Downes.

The company makes less than 2 percent of its revenues from China and can claim only about a third of the search market there.

That means, if China decides to expel the company, its bottom line won’t be much affected, with the possible exception of losing access to future growth in the country's rapidly growing Internet market.

“In some ways, they’ve done something good and they should be given credit for that,” says Downes. “But not too much credit.”

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