Google founder defends China portal
Also: How the powerful make their way to Davos, and what they're doing instead of networking.
DAVOS, Switzerland (FORTUNE) - The World Economic Forum, a gathering of leaders from the business world, media, academics, and assorted hollywood stars and do-gooders, is taking place this week. Fortune Magazine's journalists will keep you apprised of developments.
January 25, 2006
David Kirkpatrick reports: I got a chance today to talk briefly to Google founder Sergey Brin, sitting on a sofa in Davos' Congress Centre, about a topic all over the papers today -- Google (Research)'s decision to put up a site in China that accepts censorship. Brin says the decision was difficult, but made easier by discussions he had with Chinese human rights activists, including one he met at the Fortune Brainstorm Conference.
Sergey Brin: Essentially the great firewall is sophisticated enough that it would block connections based on sensitive queries. The end result was that we weren't available to about 50 percent of the users. Universities can't afford the international bandwidth, so for example students at Tsinghua University -- and I saw this myself -- had to pay in order to use Google, and I mean pay a lot, even 25 cents a megabyte, which would be unaffordable even by American standards.
This is nothing...there's no malicious plan there, it just legitimately is a bottleneck that bandwidth is somewhat limited.
Fortune: It's probably by policy also.
Brin: I don't know. I don't want to speculate. But anyhow the net effect is that all of our services...soon we will be largely unavailable. We ultimately made a difficult decision, but we felt that by participating there, and making our services more available, even if not to the 100 percent that we ideally would like, that it will be better for Chinese Web users, because ultimately they would get more information, though not quite all of it.
I met the guy at Brainstorm, I think his name's Xiao. Just over the years I've been interested in this question, and talked to three or four different people in China. My point of view really did change. And don't forget that I was born in the Soviet Union and my early childhood was spent there, so I'm very sensitive to this kind of issue. It wasn't easy. But I gradually grew comfortable, and I think we're doing the right thing.
And we also by the way have to do similar things in the U.S. and Germany. We also have to block certain material based on law. The U.S., child pornography, for example, and also DMCA
Fortune: You actually actively block child pornography?
Brin: No, but if we got a specific government request. If a third party makes a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) claim that another party is violating copyright, and that party is not able to counter, then we are obligated to block that.
In France and Germany there are Nazi material laws. One thing we do, and which we are implementing in China as well, is that if there's any kind of material blocked by local regulations we put a message to that effect at the bottom of the search engine. "Local regulations prevent us from showing all the results." And we're doing that in China also, and that makes us transparent.
Fortune: Being born in the Soviet Union you know what the issues are.
Brin: I have a feel. I left when I was six. It's not that I'm expert in these questions, but I remember what it feels like. So I'm definitely sympathetic. People will criticize us for this, and I think both kinds of viewpoints are perfectly valid. I'm comfortable with the decision that we made
Fortune: When a decision like that gets made at Google, who makes it?
Brin: It was collaborative. A lot of people were involved.
Fortune: You and Larry and Eric decide these things collectively?
Brin: We ultimately come to a consensus. I don't think anybody strongly disagrees. I'm sure there are some people who say the balance should have gone the other way, but we work as a team.
A few minutes later I ran into Human Rights Watch boss Ken Roth, who said this:
Ken Roth: I'm sure Google justifies this by saying it's just a couple of search words that people can't get to, but it's very difficult for Google to do what they just did and avoid the slippery slope. The next thing they'll do is ask them to tell them who is searching for "Taiwan" or "independence" or "human rights." And then it's going to find itself in the position of turning over the names of dissidents or simply of inquisitive individuals, for imprisonment.
The key in my view is that every company faces the same dilemma -- how do you maintain your principles while benefiting from the enormous Chinese market. And the answer is only going to come through safety in numbers. And it's going to require all of the search engines to get together and say "None of us will do this." And China needs search engines. If it can pick them off one at a time, it wins. If it faces all of the search engines at once banding together, the search engines win.
Google's got a great philosophy of "Do No Evil." And I'm sure they say well, "It's better for us to be there than for us not to be there and there are just a few things that people can't search for."
Fortune: But it's fascinating that they're resisting the slippery slope in the United States more than anyone else. If it wasn't for their resistance we never would have heard that the Department of Justice was attempting to get all those search records, which Yahoo and MSN and AOL already turned over.
Roth: Exactly. Google's in the vanguard in the United States, and it's compromising along with the rest of them in China. I'm surprised. I would have expected better from Google.
January 25, 2006
Nelson Schwartz reports: It's the most powerful bus in the world -- at least if you ask the passengers. Although Davos attracts 2,400 of the world's most powerful people, most participants aren't snobs about how to get to this hilltop ski village 2 1/2 hours from Zurich. They fork over 80 Swiss Francs (about $60) for a bus from Zurich, which is comfortable and quiet. Indeed, the only sound I heard was the furious tapping of BlackBerry keys.
Of course, the truly powerful come here by chopper -- about $7600 for a twin engine, $3400 for a single engine each way. You can save 12 minutes by taking the twin engine -- with a price difference of about $4200, that's 350 per minute for the time-is-money crowd. But the bus is a metaphor for the Davos-vibe, which is not to show-off one's influence and act as if your real purpose here isn't to schmooze or network, but to be Committed to Improving the State of the World.
Indeed, that's the actual slogan of the forum. And many of the connections don't come during the earnest sessions with titles like "Making Global Institutions Work" or "Our Ocean Legacy," but when you literally bump into people on the bus, waiting to pass through the x-ray machine at security or checking your coat. Waiting to hand over my jacket, I ran into Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer, minus the usual pack of aides. In the elevator coming from another meeting, I ran into a member of the Saudi royal family, whom I said hello to in Arabic and chatted with for a couple of minutes. A cowboy-hatted Bono, meanwhile, was strolling around the main conference center where most sessions take place. Last year, I nearly tripped over Harvard president Larry Summers' outstretched boots
That kind of serendipity is the magic of Davos. It's certainly worth putting up with a 2 1/2 hour bus ride for.
January 25, 2006
Justin Fox reports: The lobbies and lounges of the Davos Congress Centre this week represent one of the great networking opportunities on the planet. There's certainly a reasonable amount of that going on: Witness Google's Sergey Brin, clad in t-shirt and jeans, holding court—with FORTUNE's David Kirkpatrick, among others—from a sofa. And here comes New York Times supercolumnist Tom Friedman, shaking hands right and left. There goes John Bryant, the effervescent leader of L.A.-based non-profit Operation Hope, hatching plans with his new buddies Prince Haakon of Norway and Finnish philosopher Pekka Himanen.
But what is perhaps most remarkable as you wander through the warren of buildings where most of the World Economic Forum's meetings are held is how many of the people here are interacting not with those around them but with people not in Davos—via cell phone, Blackberry, laptop, or one of the crash-prone "Davos Companion" iPAQs that conference participants are given use of for the week. The computer networks inside the building, both wifi and wired, seem overwhelmed by all all the frantic hypercommunication, making e-mail and Web surfing slow, frustrating and even more time-consuming than normal.
"I really ought to go meet him," I say to myself as Novartis CEO Daniel Vasellas—a man I've heard lots of interesting things about—walks by. But no, dammit, I've just pressed "send" on an e-mail to the office and I need to wait to see if it actually goes through. As I look around the room at all the heads bowed over laptops, I know I'm not the only one choosing faulty technology over human interaction.
The annual Davos meeting is often depicted as a closed gathering of the rulers of the planet. There's certainly truth in that: A lot of really important people (along with not a few posers like me) are gathered here in a Swiss mountain resort, blocked off from the world by security forces and snow. But if this really bothers you, you should at least find reassurance in the fact that so many of the people here seem to be slaves to their jobs and lives back home, and to the technologies that connect them. Then again, you could also see this as disturbing evidence that even here among the lovely Swiss Alps, at an event that advertises itself as "committed to improving the state of the world," most of us are too caught up in our daily lives to look much beyond them.