Justin Li

Google as a Social Force


Google has increasingly been involved in social and political issues, not just in the US but around the world. Most of you are familiar with the criticism of Google on their privacy policy, with their ability to identify so many people (Google has over 844 million unique visitors per month). A less familiar issue is the problem of network neutrality, or whether internet providers can charge more for people accessing certain sites. Google is part of the Open Internet Coalition which is against ISP filtering. However, questions have been raised as to whether laws should be enacted to make Google content neutral as well.

The latest in Google's involvement in politics is in China. When Google first went into the Chinese market, it complied with government laws about censoring, so that websites about Falun Gong, about criticism of the communist government, etc. would not be listed on Google's search results. Google recently published a blog post talking about a recent attack on Google's services, specifically to get information from accounts of known activists. The post itself does not name the hackers, but as the later part of the post mentions its China policy, it is implied that the hackers work for the Chinese government.

What is particularly interesting about this latest development is that Google, as a business, could have done nothing. Certainly, the attacks should result in increased security measures, but there is no reason for Google to change its China policy. Google earns money mostly from ad revenue, and the more eyeballs an ad gets, the more money Google makes. Google's Chinese site directs a nation of 1.3 billion people to its ads, so if the purpose of a business is to increase profits, Google should keep their Chinese portal open.

That Google is reviewing its China policy, to the extent of considering closing down Google China, is good news. The company with the motto of "Don't be Evil" is touching a lot of legal spheres: freedom of access to information, freedom of speech, copyright... What Google, and increasingly other international companies, decide to do in the face of local government pressure may send a strong signal to the global community.

It is not just that these companies have global reach, but that increasingly the problems one country faces cannot be solved without the participation of other countries. China, without the international scrutiny, would likely increase their censorship. With the recent disastrous Copenhagen talks on climate change, we need companies to put aside short term interests, and consider the effects of their actions on the world as a whole.

In an age where companies have more income than entire developed nations, we need to question what obligations they should have.

EDIT: Ars Technica article about Google's blog post.