Google’s Responsibility

Andrew Sullivan flags a noble-sounding quote from Google CEO Eric Schmidt:

“The internet is the strongest force for individual self-expression ever invented. Governments around the world, even democratically elected, have difficulty with [the flow of] information online. Dictatorships and closed communities one after the other will try and shut down communication from inside. Strategies governments use trying to shut down people’s speech are terrible strategies and will not succeed . . .”

This, of course, is from the same company that helps the Chinese government filter out “objectionable” content from Internet searches. I’m generally uninterested in Google’s corporate PR strategy, but this strikes me as a gigantic cop-out. In essence, Schmidt is suggesting that Google’s technical support for repressive regimes is irrelevant because attempts to limit “self-expression” won’t succeed. Well, they might succeed if the Chinese government works hand-in-glove with our most advanced software companies to shut down online dissent. At the very least, I daresay Google’s efforts will help prolong the regime’s ability to control the flow of public information. And if Schmidt truly believes that efforts to limit information are a lost cause, isn’t he essentially lying to his company’s client, the Chinese government, which seems to be operating under the assumption that the Great Firewall is pretty darn effective at “shut[ting] down people’s speech?”

The most noxious thing about this passively-constructed exercise in corporate ass-covering is how Schmidt simultaneously applauds the information revolution for empowering free speech while abdicating responsibility for facilitating government repression. After all, how can crackdown-enabling corporations like Google be criticized if the free flow of information is an inevitability? Those dissidents – they’ll find away around our firewalls – after all, they always do! Except when they, err, don’t.

As an avowed techno-skeptic, I’m not very confident that Schmidt’s much-ballyhooed information revolution will magically solve state repression. I’m quite confident, however, that celebrating these developments while simultaneously working behind the scenes to control their most radical features is the worst kind of corporate hypocrisy.

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8 thoughts on “Google’s Responsibility

  1. This is the flipside of “I, Pencil”. As long as it makes money, as long as no one can taste the blood in the sugar, then externalities like civil rights or the environment just aren’t going to matter. If it’s impossible to keep track of how our toasters and pencils are made, then it’s impossible to take responsibility for them.

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  2. It’s definitely a little duplicitous on the part of Schmidt, although I don’t think keeping Google out of China really changes the situation. The Great Firewall would still exist, and search engine results would still be filtered. I doubt Google is actually giving technological trade secrets to the Chinese government.

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    • I completely and totally sympathize with that attitude.

      I think I disagree with it, though.

      The incrementalist approach will, I think, get to where we want to be faster than an absolutist one. Google is putting the nose of the camel in the tent and China (and liberty, for that matter) is better off for that tool being there than if it were not there.

      The vector is heading in the right direction.

      Is it ideal? No. Absolutely not… but I don’t know that the ideal that I would prefer to see is even possible. Given that, I think that getting everyone in China on the internet is a long-term benefit to the idea of liberty and the firewall is damage that will eventually be routed around.

      Half a vector in the right direction is better than none.

      Yes, the google guys are being evil and the Chinese government is, once again, being evil… but there is a genie being let out of the bottle there. A google.cn, however censored, will let the genie out of the bottle much faster than a world without it.

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    • Oh, absolutely!!!

      But I am not looking at the action but the vector the action is taking. If, for example, the United States did what Google in China is doing, I’d see it as… well, let’s be kind and say an exceptionally boycottable act and one that, if it resulted in, say, hacking would probably get me to say “what did they expect?” rather than a discussion of the rule of law.

      This exact same act, however, is a step in the right direction for China.

      The vector is the important thing, here. The content of the act is secondary.

      (Is that hypocrisy too, I wonder?)

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  3. It’s either capitulate or Google gets added to the Great Firewall cinders. I think it’s safe to say that with regards Iran Google are doing their bit – that Farsi roll-out was quite clearly as political a move as Andrew Sullivan changing his banners to green.

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