As we all take in the latest wrinkle in the Google (
) vs. China story, a few thoughts. (Full disclosure: I own
something like 5 shares of Google, Inc.)
Let Them Have It Both Ways
First, Google's decision to redirect traffic to Hong Kong
carries the faint scent of a company trying to have it both ways.
On the one hand, Google would like to take the moral high ground
with audiences worldwide, saying that it is no longer under the
meaty thumb of Chinese government oversight. On the other, it wants
to be able to tell advertisers and shareholders that the company is
still doing business "in" China, albeit from a sort of offshore
data haven, and if possible maintain its #2 market position against
). (Clearly, Google isn't excited about leaving the world's largest
Internet market for a potential global competitor to dominate, or
about creating a vacuum that would invite new competitors.) If they
can pull this off, more power to them.
Success is not a given, however. In order to convince
shareholders, they have to convince advertisers, and in order to
convince advertisers, they need to maintain and build their user
base. This means that the Hong Kong servers need to be as fast and
easy to access as the Google.cn servers were. It also means that
the government needs to resist the temptation to block access to
the Hong Kong search engine from China.
Saving Face for Everyone
It is tempting to stop here and simply say "any bets on that
one?" But this brings us to my second point. There will be some
among China's policymakers who will be tempted to block the Hong
Kong Google service completely. There are better choices that would
allow Chinese users and businesses to enjoy Google's search and SEO
capabilities while serving the purposes of the government.
This is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate strength by
exercising restraint. I don't think unrestricted access to an
offshore Chinese language search engine is in the cards. But it
would be a simple matter for the central government to treat
Google.com.hk the same way they treat Google's English services.
Allow the site to remain accessible, but block searches that use
terms the government finds objectionable. A nanny-moderated Chinese
Google experience is better than none at all, and it gives China an
opportunity to take a little high ground of its own. It would also
serve to boost Google's effort to expand its Hong Kong operations,
something Hong Kong would surely like to see, and potentially help
position Google as China's Internet Entrepot. The SAR could sure
use a boost, and seeing the central government take a stance that
will benefit Hong Kong might help improve sentiment about Beijing
on Jardine's Rock.
It is not a perfect solution, but it is one that would allow
both Google and the government - and Hong Kong - to come out of
this better off.
Third, Sergei Brin's high visibility on this issue raises more
questions than it answers. As a child of the Soviet Union, Mr.
Brin's outspokenness on the China matter creates an unspoken (and
not entirely accurate) parallel between China and the USSR that
seems to bolster Google's moral position. But it also keeps in the
pubic eye a disturbing question: where was Mr. Brin in 2006 when
Google made the original decision to operate a local China search
engine under the terms spelled out by Chinese regulators? After
all, the Hong Kong option was as open to Google in 2006 as it is
today. Why did Google come ashore in the first place?
Did Mr. Brin or others strenuously object to the compromise and
were overridden? If that is the case, what provoked the sudden
change of heart? (And please, do not bring up the gmail hacks
issue: that is an issue unrelated to the continued operation of the
search engine.) Or was the company naive enough to believe that the
reality of operating in China was at odds with its professed
These are not academic questions, nor are they relevant only to
Google's China business: they speak directly to the matter of the
company's corporate governance, and, of wider interest, to the way
in which the company balances its moral stance with the temptation
of business opportunities. As Google grows more influential and
ubiquitous, it needs to make these matters clear to the public and,
if necessary, rectify inconsistencies. Those of us who enjoy
Google, its services, its software, and its share price want to
know whether Google will truly be different as it grows, or whether
it will simply become Microsoft-in-the-Cloud.
Wednesday's Worry: Worldwide Cash Crunch