Search giant Google may seek to alter terms of the agreement it made in order to conduct its Web search business in China. Google co-founder Sergey Brin suggested the move after admitting the company’s decision to agree to censorship conflicts with its philosophy and famous “do no evil” motto.
Brin has acknowledged in the past that Google’s deal with China’s communist government to censor certain search terms “wasn’t what we ideally would like.” However, the company has said that the opportunity to do business in China was too great to ignore, and argued that having a presence there could, over time, lead to more openness and free speech.
On Tuesday, Brin went a step further, saying the company may even reverse its earlier decision to agree to the censorship.
“We felt that perhaps we could compromise our principles but provide ultimately more information for the Chinese and be a more effective service and perhaps make more of a difference,” Brin said. “Perhaps now the principled approach makes more sense.”
Google’s China Web search service makes it impossible for China-based users to retrieve sites that contain politically sensitive information, such as news reports about the pro-democracy uprising in Tiananmen Square, which the government put down with force.
Reversal of Fortune?
Brin did not suggest a change was imminent, saying that the details of how the search product in China is working need to be examined to determine how it’s being used. Still, his acknowledgment that a change was possible was seen as a major shift.
“It’s perfectly reasonable to do something different, to say, ‘Look, we’re going to stand by the principle against censorship and we won’t actually operate there.’ That’s an alternate path,” Brin said. “It’s not where we chose to go right now, but I can sort of see how people came to different conclusions about doing the right thing.”
Google has been lambasted by U.S. lawmakers for its decision to cooperate with Chinese censorship efforts, with some proposing legislation to sanction it and other Internet companies doing business there under the government’s terms.
Meanwhile, it appears that China may be stepping up its efforts to block Chinese Internet users from accessing the U.S.-based, English-language version of the Google search engine, with reports saying that reaching the Google.com site from mainland China has become more difficult in recent weeks. It’s not clear if that and Google’s possible regret about the decision to work with China are related.
Search engine expert and Google book author John Battelle said he has long believed that Google missed an opportunity when it made the decision it did in China.
“I’ve always thought that the company had a chance to lead there, but talked itself into doing what everyone else has done,” Battelle said.
He and others say the comments from Brin may also represent a divergence of opinion within Google about how to handle the situation, with CEO Eric Schmidt having been quoted as saying Google did “absolutely the right thing.”
Brin’s comments came during a trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby in support of legislation guaranteeing net neutrality, a measure Google and other Web firms believe is essential to protect them from broadband network owners — especially cable and telecom companies — who may see them as a competitive threat.
Some observers have noted that those lobbying efforts are likely not helped by the work the Internet companies are doing in China.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is among those who has agreed with Google’s argument that the presence of U.S. Internet firms in China may help open the country up to more free speech and democracy over time. “I think the Web is contributing to Chinese political engagement,” Gates said recently. “Access to the outside world is preventing more censorship.”
Others say the companies are guilty of capitulating too easily to China’s demand. “No U.S. company acting alone can resist China’s demands, but those that choose to do business in China must push back,” said Leslie Harris, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Progress can only be made with a common approach and someone taking a leadership role.”