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Google in the Garden
of Good and Evil

How the search-engine giant moved beyond mere morality.

10:00 AM, May 3, 2006 • By ANDREW KEEN
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Google's strategy in China, from early 2000 onwards, was to build a Chinese language version of its search engine that would mirror the content on the English language google.com. But on September 3, 2002, the Chinese government, deploying the so-called Great Firewall of China, shut down the Chinese language version of google.com because domestic Chinese Internet users had been using the uncensored search engine to access forbidden websites.

The company was faced with a joint ethical and business dilemma. It could either negotiate a compromise with the Chinese government or effectively cede the Chinese market to local search engine Baidu. Brin, Page, and company CEO Eric Schmidt chose to do business with the authorities in Beijing and build a "customized solution" for the China market.

In December 2005, Google signed a deal with the Chinese government that enabled the company to establish a legal presence in China. On January 27 of this year, the newly-engineered search engine "google.cn" launched. In contrast with the original Google Chinese language site in China (which continued to hobble along, ever vulnerable to the capricious whims of the Great Firewall), google.cn is censored. The Google engineers added an algorithm which replicated the ideological desires of the authorities in Beijing. As Clive Johnson explained in a recent New York Times magazine piece about Google in China:

Brin's team had one more challenge to confront: how to determine which sites to block? The Chinese government wouldn't give them a list. So Google's engineers hit on a high-tech solution. They set up a computer inside China and programmed it to try to access Web sites outside the country, one after another. If a site was blocked by the firewall, it meant the government regarded it as illicit--so it became part of Google's blacklist.

Google chose to mimic the Great Firewall. Everything that the Chinese government blocks, Google also blocks. Sensitive links, to Falun Gong, Tibetan opposition, or Tiananmen Square commemoration sites, no longer appear--instead, google.cn informs its users that the requested information is not available due to Chinese law. The presence of this information is, therefore, defined by its absence, by its holes rather than its wholeness. It's a scheme which might have been imagined by Kafka or Orwell.

On January 6 of this year, three weeks before google.cn launched, I attended Google co-founder Larry Page's keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Unsurprisingly, Page didn't speak about his China strategy. Instead he romanticized the bright side of Google's moral equation--their Africa policy:

Now let me switch gears to talk about a very serious issue. About 15 percent of the people in the world are on the Internet right now--15 per cent. We still have a huge way to go to get everyone online. . . . If you look at a picture of earth from space at night, you'll see that anywhere there's electric light, there's Internet, and anywhere there's Internet people are using Google. It all corresponds perfectly. But it's very sad that, for example, there are almost no queries coming from anywhere in Africa. I think that's an important thing to work on.

But in spite of this "sad" reality, Page had been "working on" a solution for the poverty of queries emanating out of the electronically dark African continent:

To try to help this, something we've been supporting is the MIT $100 Laptop Project. . . . It's a very cool project and they have very ambitious goals for it. They want to actually get 100 million of these out in the hands of children worldwide. It's also a very cool device, with a half a gigahertz processor, 128 megs of RAM and 500 megs of flash. And they're also doing a lot of cool things to get the price down. But I think it's really important to get devices like that out there in the world to give people greater access.

Getting a laptop into the hands of every African child isn't just a dream. In February of this year, a few weeks after Page's CES speech, Google announced the appointment of Silicon Valley visionary Larry Brilliant as executive director of Google.org--the company's $1 billion philanthropic arm. In a February 23 interview with Wired magazine, Brilliant articulated the value of providing underprivileged African children with laptop computers and wi-fi Internet access:

I envision a kid [in Africa] getting online and finding that there is an outbreak of cholera down the street.