There's not much to say on the legal matter of what Google recently did to its own values, and 1.3 billion people's fundamental freedoms, in order to enter the Chinese market. As an American company, Google can filter and censor its database as much as the China government demands, with no real legal repercussions.

U.S. law has certainly spoken in the past about American companies' behavior in foreign authoritarian states. Perhaps the House Subcommittee on Human Rights hearings on February 15 will clarify what the U.S. Congress will make of such actions in the future.

Beyond the law, we at the EFF are, of course, deeply disappointed with the decision Google has made.

So, it seems, are many at Google. The company's senior counsel admits that it has "compromised its mission" by censoring its index. The company has made it clear that it sees the decision as a difficult choice: the lesser of two evils.

Lesser or not, Google has made a far-reaching decision. It has decided to magic away thousands of websites from easy access to the Chinese net. It has not only removed critics of Chinese government from its searches, but left an unbalanced and misleading residue of praise for the status quo, and scorn for its victims. It has set up an evil honeypot—capturing and keeping the IP addresses and search terms of Chinese users so that they will be easily retrievable by the Chinese authorities when they want to crack down on people who search for "Tibet" or "Chinese democracy." Yahoo recently cooperated with a request from the Chinese government for information about its users and the damage was a 10 year prison sentence for a journalist in China's notorious prisons. Google has also set a precedent for every other state that wants to hide the free speech of the Net from its subjects. It has declared to dissidents everywhere that here is another Western company happy to barter away the rights they struggle for, and that the Western governments claim are precious.

Google's executives may feel badly about what it has done. But if a company can aspire to "not be evil," and then fail to live up to that, and admits that it has compromised its own mission, what can it do?

How can Google possibly reduce, if not make up for, the damage it has done?

It Can Work Harder To Protect Its Chinese Users

Google now has a stake in China; that means the Chinese government now has its fingers firmly on Google.

Google stood up to the U.S. government when it asked for their records, but what threats - to their business, and to their employees - might China make to obtain similar information?

The more companies like Google place themselves where they can be pressured by repressive governments like China, the greater the risk that they will be made offers that they simply cannot refuse.

Google should take this as the moment to reform its data retention practices.

The only way it can reasonably protect the privacy of any of its users from repressive governments is to stop collecting so much information about its users; delete information that it does collect as soon as possible; and take real steps to minimize how much of the information it collects is traceable back to individual Google users. The more Google records, the more tempted all governments will be to pry into its practices.

It Could Innovate Around Censorship

Google's compromise not only goes against their corporate ethics; it's also terrible engineering. The fine minds at Google know that filtering doesn't work; their implementation is clumsy and, perhaps thankfully, full of holes. Put bluntly, Google's censorship is both immoral and inelegant.

Google prides itself on the brilliance of its employees. Famously, each of its developers is allowed to spend 20% of their time working on personal projects.

If Google and its engineers truly believe in making the world's information "universally accessible," then part of that mission must be to develop the technological means to bypass the censorship and filtering and surveillance that the Chinese government, among others, practice.

These are worthy challenges of any technologist. Perhaps one day, with the right tools, no one will need to make the compromises that Google has. Google could choose to lead the work that will create that future.

It Should Bear Witness

Google spokespeople have equated its practice in China with its censorship of its results in Germany, France and - in cases of DMCA takedown notices - the United States.

The comparison is inaccurate. Google does remove links in accord with "local laws and regulations," but in all countries except China, it makes some attempt to document what is removed. In particular, Google files details with the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, an independent site co-run by the EFF and several universities. Censorship is always damaging to freedom; but, in other countries, Google works to mitigate that damage.

In China, the censor list for China is secret; and while Google does give notice when censored search results are presented, they do not provide links to further detailed information as they do when censored by Western states.

Perhaps Google cannot reveal what is being removed. Perhaps that is part of the deal it has struck. No one knows.

Even so, it should take those secret lists to which China has made it an accessory, and keep them safe.

Because if Google is as optimistic about its effect on China as it claims, one day China's people will look back on this time, and they will want the truth.

And if Google cannot or will not give them the truth now, then they can at least prepare for when their company will be asked again. Then, by accurately recounting what and when they hid from the Chinese people at the behest of their rulers, Google can at least hope be able to make some part atonement for collaborating with authoritarian states; and for censoring so much of the Net for so many people.

Now that Google has rejected doing all it can for the Chinese people, it can at least attempt the minimum that decency requires.

Related Issues