New motto: Don't be unprofitable
Creating a censored Google for China was a rational and responsible act for a commercial business.
Davos, Switzerland (FORTUNE) - Google is not evil. You'd think it was the end of the world as we know it, to read many accounts of the company's decision this week to create a new version of Google inside China that will censor certain search terms at the request of the government.
Google (Research), the consumer, media and Wall Street darling, seemed to many to be abandoning its longheld (well, for 8 years or so) motto of "do no evil." But what Google did was a rational act for a commercial business, and can even be justified on moral grounds.
As Sergey Brin said in an interview I conducted with him and blogged from the Davos World Economic Forum on Wednesday, "People will criticize us for this, and I think both...viewpoints are perfectly valid."
I got a chance to talk more about the issue with Google CEO Eric Schmidt last night in the doorway of a hotel in Davos, where he, I, Brin, and several thousand others are attending the World Economic Forum.
"Tell me something," he said. "Was the Cuban trade embargo effective? Is Castro still in power?" His point, of course, was that totally blackballing rogue or repressive regimes is not always the most effective way to change their behavior and benefit their citizens.
I also asked him to respond to the comments I posted along with Brin's from Human Rights Watch President Ken Roth, who had suggested that Google join with Yahoo (Research), MSN and other search companies and collectively refuse to censor results, on threat of quitting China.
"Has he ever heard of Baidu?" asked Schmidt. He said he believed that for American companies to withdraw from the market would perfectly suit the Chinese government. Then Baidu, and other local search companies that have zero compunction about censoring speech in far more ways than Google has contemplated, would command the field, and make more money to boot.
Even friends and pundits I much respect are coming down hard on Google. At MarketWatch, Bambi Francisco writes "It's profound what being a public company can do to the core values of a young firm." She goes on to say the China move "makes a mockery of those values."
Google growing up
Rebecca MacKinnon, one of the world's most prominent online rights activists, goes further, writing Wednesday on her blog, "Google has caved in," and saying the action "contradicts its mission statement: 'don't be evil.'" On Thursday MacKinnon modulated herself somewhat, even noting that on the censored Google one can still find reports describing the recent events at Dong Zhou village, where police shot citizen protesters, as a "blood crime" or "massacre."
If Google made a mistake, it may have been to adopt its famous slogan years ago, long before the possibility ever dawned on founders Brin and Larry Page that the company they were starting might one day have a market cap of $128 billion, as it does now. Evil is a strong word, and to spout such rhetoric rightly raises expectations that are now being disappointed.
But the reality is that no business that aims to make money -- as Google of course does -- can make decisions purely on moral grounds. Morality must be part of the calculus, but so must the interests of shareholders. Managing a modern business is increasingly a matter of juggling competing values and goals. Google continues to do a good job of this, in my opinion.
The company remains considerably further from anything I'd consider "evil" than most giant global enterprises. This is still a company that is trying to do the right thing for its many constituencies. I believe Brin when he says that the consensus of the company's leaders was that even by the standards of morality it was doing the right thing to make most of the full power of Google available to all residents of China, even at the cost of suppressing political speech and inquiry.
Up until now, the servers to which Chinese customers connected when they searched Google were located outside China. That meant access was slow, both because of bandwidth constraints and longstanding Chinese government filtering. That old way of using Google will remain available, but most users will now see the self-censored Chinese-hosted version.
Many have noted the irony of Google refusing to turn over search records to the U.S. Department of Justice last week while shortly thereafter acceding to Chinese government censorship. But this is merely a rational response to the exigencies of each market. In the U.S. its customers will reward it for upholding their right to privacy. In China, the company presumes that most consumers will have a positive reaction to getting access to a Google that is faster and easier to use.
Here at Davos more conversations include the word "Google" than the name of any other company. It's the world's hottest business. Rightly, its every move is scrutinized minutely. But from where I sit, it is behaving rationally, and responsibly, in China.