Friday, February 03, 2006

Google scales evil

Well, at least you can see the flowers behind the tank—For those of you wondering what it’s like to search the web in a country that tries to censor it—with the help of the companies running the search engines—the San Francisco Chronicle can help. Google, as you know, employing its motto, don’t be evil unless profits are involved, has agreed to let the Chinese government dictate what is shown on Google searches. The Chron tried it out. If you put in the word “Tiananmen” (as in Square) into Google’s image search page from, the Chinese page, you get a lovely picture of the square with birds and tourists and huge buildings in a peaceful setting. If you do the same search on, the U.S. version, you get tanks rolling through the square suppressing student demonstrators, a couple hundred of whom were apparently suppressed to death. The Chinese government denies the rioting ever took place despite the fact it was seen on television around the world—remember that remarkable man facing down a tank? Now Google has accepted the Chinese version of history.

Google, of course, is not alone. Microsoft and Yahoo also agreed, but Microsoft and Yahoo don’t pretend to rise above naked capitalism; Google does. In order to get licenses to operate in China, they agree to block sites the government wants blocked, like “Falun Gong” or “independent Tibet.”

(There is, however, a sly way around the censorship: misspell the search. For instance, if you misspell Tiananmen, you get the tanks on, or you will until the word gets back to Beijing. And word searches will sometimes get you to a page Google hasn’t blocked—yet. At least that’s true if you access it from here. It’s not clear if the firewalls in China block them.)

Sometimes a site isn’t blocked, but altered. Search for “Tibet independence” on and you get the Dalai Lama being urged to give up Tibet; do it on outside sites and you get Tibet independence pages. And, Google insists, if someone reaches a censored page Google tells them it was censored.

Google says it took all this seriously and that internal discussion within the company lasted a year. They decided the lessor evil was to do it this way instead of simply dropping out of China's gigantic market altogether. Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO told the Davos Conference: “We concluded that although we weren’t wild about the restrictions, it was even worse to not try to serve those users at all. We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil,” he said.

I wonder if you can copyright an evil scale. That might be profitable.

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