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Jan 30

Uln on Google.cn – “Why it’s Good that Google.cn Leaves”

Written by Raj on Saturday, January 30th, 2010 at 10:10 am
Filed under:-mini-posts, Analysis, Opinion, technology | Tags:, ,
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Uln posted a great piece on the Google matter on his blog. Go there to read the whole thing – a selection follows.

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Advanced SEM for Dummies (Search Engine Manipulation)

The most amusing thing in the Google crisis is all the commentators crying about the loss of Google.cn and its negative consequences for the freedom of the Chinese. In fact, I maintain that Google.cn is the most evil product to ever have existed in the Chinese internet, and the World will be a better place without it.

That is because, unlike the Chinese official sites that practice censorship, what the search engines do is manipulation. Why? Because Google.cn is not a content site in itself, it is a gateway to the internet. When people type in a keyword into the search field, they are actually trusting it to return a fair picture of what is on the net.

When you type a “sensitive” term and G.cn removes all the results except the People’s Daily and Xinhua, Google’s responsibility is double: not only it supports those often objectible views on the first page, but it also implicitly states that it is the ONLY opinion existing in the World.

And the worse is, the Chinese who believed that would be right to do so, because Google’s well known principles clearly specify their commitment to give all the information available in a democratic way. The little warning message that is displayed on Google.cn SEM searches is meant to avoid this situation, but it is tiny and often placed right at the bottom of the page, so most Chinese users just ignore it.

In the case of Google.cn, SEM is not about “good” or “evil”. It is about breaking the very principles that give a sense to the Google company, and it is understandable that Google has never been comfortable with it.

Conclusion

It is obvious that, if Google manages to keep Google.com and eliminate Google.cn, and in the process convince the CCP that it has already suffered the deserved punishment (for Google it DOES matter to lose G.cn, it is a source of revenue) then all will have ended well. That was probably not the initial intention of Google’s move, but it is a possible outcome.

On the other hand, some commenters are already saying that I am too optimistic, and that the CCP will quickly come to the same conclusion I have come and block Google.com. The good news is that EVEN if they do block Google.com, the situation will still be better than today. The Chinese Google users will start to miss the G, and they will start to use web proxies to access Google.com, expanding their use and making the Chinese net population more conscious of the GFW and of the ways to cross it.

Kai Pan makes the opposite argument that it’s better for Google to stay in China. Personally I find Uln’s more persuasive. If Google.cn provides an indispensable service, after Google’s withdrawal an alternative will spring up for Chinese internet users to use or the users themselves will access Google.com (directly or through proxies). If they don’t need Google.cn, they won’t be losing anything. And at the very least Google won’t be supporting the Chinese government’s filtering of the internet by offering a censored version of their search engine.

Hat-tip to Richard at the Peking Duck for flagging this up.


There are currently 1 comments highlighted: 59779.

15 Responses to “Uln on Google.cn – “Why it’s Good that Google.cn Leaves””

  1. jxie Says:
    Google’s well known principles clearly specify their commitment to give all the information available in a democratic way.

    This really cracks me up. “Democratic” way? Google’s managing its page ranks is as dictatorial as it can get. Don’t feel like getting into some of the war stories on how Google has screwed over many outfits over its mystical tweaking of its algorithms — and the only way you can get back in the game is to pay Google, or its technical interpretations (business.com and others vis-a-vis HTTP 301 or 302 redirections) of some Internet standards, etc. Just do this test to simulate some real-world cases: create a defamatory page about yourself, e.g. you had sex with a donkey. After you confirm the page is cached in Google, simulate a court-order takedown of that page by removing it, and try to talk to Google to remove the cache.

    If you think G.cn’s Chinese search result is somehow the popular pages, or in a way popular opinions in the cyberspace, you need to get real. Due to a host of reasons including where decisions are made and where servers are hosted in Google, G.cn is a laggard in capturing some of the nuances in the Chinese cyberspace, which translates to not having the popular opinions at the top. Some of these nuances are:

    * New short-handed Cyberwords. e.g. WSN = 猥琐男, a newly minted cyberword often used in a self-deprecating way.
    * Slight misspell due to the pinyin input.
    * Cases such as “台/独“, “胎毒“, “W独” being essentially the same.
    * Lack of copyright protection causes many popular contents to have fewer backward links, instead they are just copied and pasted to other sites, so Google’s referential link weight is less useful, if not “wrong”.
    * 李宗伟 and 李宗 are 2 people.
    * etc.

  2. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Raj,
    ULN’s article is very interesting and informative. Thanks for the link.

    His experience seems to be that Chinese can access g.com, but simply don’t bother given the existence of g.cn. If g.cn goes away, one question will be whether CHinese will bother to go to g.com instead. And if g.com becomes blocked, then the question becomes whether people will bother to go around the block to get to g.com. If the answers are yes and yes, then there’s little financial reason for g.cn to exist, and the philosophical issues don’t even come into play. Of course, those are huge “if’s”, and time will tell.

  3. Allen Says:

    @Uln – good job articulating an issue that others may not have.

    I agree with you that to the extent that Google feels its search results have been so comprised by Chinese laws that its results really is not “googly” enough – it should withdraw from China – and wait for a better day to re-enter the Chinese market. It’s not worth it soiling your brand – of changing your identity – just to get a beach head on a potentially lucrative market. It’s better to expose a wound than cover the wound only to have it spoil under cover.

    Of course – if the majority of Chinese really don’t care that much about Chinese censorship – then from a Chinese marketing’s perspective – what Google is doing (complying with Chinese laws) can’t be that evil – Google can’t be soiling its brand that much conforming to Chinese policies.

    Even from an international perspective, Google should assess whether Chinese censorship are so much more restrictive than say Indian laws – or French laws – or U.S. Patriot or hate speech Laws. Would Google be able to score points in the long run as an upstanding company or be seen as just another hypocritical company? (I will leave readers to define upstanding and hypocrisy here – to each his own!)

  4. Zepplin Says:

    I wasn’t going to comment on the Google thing on this site since it’s so overblown and I didn’t want to add to the sea of pointless talk backs currently plaguing parts of the discussions here. However, my view is sufficiently different that it would be a contribution; which I’ll post in a later comment. But before that, I’d like to comment on the two articles by Raj and Allen

    Raj,

    If I may dramatize, are you saying that China isn’t ready for democracy? Because that’s what these condescending arguments lead to. Let me explain. As Kai Pan’s argues, Google.cn is choice. Losing Google.cn is a loss of choice. This is irrefutable. The second part of his claim, that less choice is less freedom, is certainly refutable, because while choice may provide more immediate freedom, it can easily curtail greater freedom in the future (e.g. electing a dictator).

    One can, as Uln does, think of Google.cn as a drug. By providing superior search results compared with Baidu at a faster speed compared to Google.com, it allows Chinese users to choose censoring without sacrificing search ability in other fields. If Google.cn is removed, some people will migrate to Baidu, and others will scale the wall. The fact that the latter group will not be 0 means that more people will access un-censored results.

    So all is good, right? Wrong. Having access to un-censored results is not the be all and end all. By removing Google.cn, Many people will have lost their preferred search engine. Do they need it? No. Do they prefer it? Yes. How do I know? They chose it. When all three searches were available, they chose Google.cn over Baidu; they chose Google.cn over Google.com. Who are you to tell them that their choice is wrong? The only conclusion is that, this is for their “own good”. Google.cn was poisoning them. Access to un-censored search in and of itself, is not important enough for some of these sheep to accept a speed hit. We have to “sanction” them by withholding their preferred search from them.

    Since these sheep will take a good alternative censored version over the real deal, they need to be weaned off their drug and forced to choose between a worse search and censor free search. Man, why can’t they appreciate freedom like they are supposed to? If only we could remove this state capitalists crap too. If these sheep were only allowed to choose between democracy + prosperity versus authoritarian + destitution, I’m sure all these brain washed fifty-cents will finally “get it” and “choose” correctly. But they definitely can’t choose for themselves, heck I bet they’ll elect a dictatorship right back.

    Allen,

    Is Google’s monopoly comparable to China’s censorship? SKC says that Google provides a choice, but the CCP does not. This rebuttal is wrong. It is an argument based on semantics rather than reality. In reality, the Chinese people could easily “scale the wall” and access information (but often choose not to). CCP is not eliminating the choice, only hampering it in this case. Similarly, in reality, anyone can choose not to use Google, but its dominant market position greatly hampers such usage (this is because search is a natural monopoly, despite what r_v says. A dominant share can gather much better user info and search patterns, which in turn improve the search). Google can certainly engage in manipulation if it so chooses and remain the best search provider. To make a black and white distinction between choice and no-choice is just semantics. To make a distinction between company and government is also just semantics. In reality, both CCP’s censorship and Google’s refusal to share its accumulated search patterns both hurt actual choice.

    However, Google’s imperfection does not in any way reduce the validity of its claim that censorship is evil. To defend the government with this approach, as with all hypocrisy flagging approaches, as I’ve said time and time again, is a sign of weakness in your own position. Similarly, to claim that we shouldn’t rely on for-profit corporations to preach what is good and evil is insulting to those who chose Google’s side independently. Blind Google cultists may be good straw men, but doesn’t help your argument. Lastly, the giant leap to the existence of multiple forms of “freedom of speech” is not merely unconvincing; this out-of-the-blue claim cements the article’s inability to defend CCP censorship. There are much better approaches to justify CCP’s restrictions on the freedom of speech, beyond the scope of this comment.

    To come: why all this hoopla is so overblown

    Less relevant: I read this great piece in the NYT today: http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/google-vs-china-
    considering-threats-to-internet-freedom/

    Even less relevant, moderators: lately I feel the comments here could use more censorship.

  5. Allen Says:

    @Zepplin #4,

    One thing I’d like to emphasize above all others when we discuss “choice” is the notion of “informed choice.” This is not the place to discuss – I’d rather make it a brand new post. But I’ll make a quick comment just to get it off my chest.

    To me being informed about choice is so very, very important. Otherwise, a “choice” is just another semantic rhetoric – as you may say. A blind choice or manipulated choice is not much of a choice after all.

    For me, informed chance does not arise simply because of government non-interference (as you may also say, that is also semantics). It comes about from a populace that is well fed, well educated, well informed, and of course – willing to make a choice.

  6. Steve Says:

    I have a question. I’m no expert on search engine protocol, algorithms, what differentiates one search engine from another, etc. so what I wonder is this…

    Google, Bing, Baidu, etc. are basically providers of links to information already on the net. They don’t actually create anything, they just link to other creators of information. I think this part is accurate but if not, please correct me.

    So when any search engine provides a link to another website, isn’t it just a link? So say that Google provided a link to Falun Gong’s website. If I was in China and clicked on that link, wouldn’t the website still be blocked by the GFW? And if so, why worry about the link itself? You can’t get informed or misinformed by a link, only frustrated if the link doesn’t work. Is this still accurate?

    If it is, then if the GFW is already blocking Falun Gong, Tiananmen, porn, etc., why the fuss about it? If the information is not able to be accessed, it shouldn’t matter if the link exists. If anything, wouldn’t an accurate search engine provide the GFW with sites they can then block? Wouldn’t it be their greatest resource in order to do their job?

    Now since there’s such a big controversy about all this, I’m positive that there is a weak link somewhere in this chain of conjecture. I just don’t understand where it is. I’m sure the answer is obvious to many here but it’s just not my field and I was curious about it.

  7. Raj Says:

    Zepplin (4)

    If I may dramatize, are you saying that China isn’t ready for democracy?

    China obviously isn’t ready for multi-party elections. But it is more than ready to start the lifting of restrictions that stop the development of democracy, as a precursor to democracy itself.

  8. Allen Says:

    @Steve #6,

    The Chinese government does not (is not able to) block all links. They can block at a domain level – but at a page level – it will take time – if at all.

    Censoring at the search indexer level is easier. Since an index is being built based (in part) on keywords, the government can mandate indexer to opt out the index sites based on certain keywords.

    One of the thing Google wants the Chinese government to “compromise” on is to free Google to index as it wants, but leave the Chinese government to block the individual links. While the government might have agreed to that at some time in the not too distant future, I don’t think it will now, given the high profile this is getting already – if anything else, for the fear of looking to succumb to power from the West.

  9. jxie Says:

    @Steve #6

    The short answer is cache and preview. Even the final site is blocked, with cache and preview available, you still can effectively view part or all of the blocked content. Both cache and preview are very useful features, and search engines wouldn’t and shouldn’t cripple them.

    Technically what you described is pretty much correct. An important detail is when you click a paid link on a search returned page, it will first go to the search engine, record a hit (so it can get paid), and immediately be redirected to the page you actually clicked. To the final page, the redirection contains very useful information such as who gave you the link, and what search keyword(s) were used.

    @SKC #2

    If G.cn is pulls out of China, with some exceptions, Google likely won’t be able to get paid for search in China.

  10. Zepplin Says:

    Allen 5,

    I disagree with you on the importance of informed choice, but this indeed not the place to discuss it. Regarding the topic at hand, the remedy would be to try and inform the people, e.g. Google.cn’s disclaimer. Pulling it out of the choice set does not help unless you believe Google.com is the only informed choice

    Steve 6,

    In addition to Allen and Jxie’s good points,

    The CCP does not wish the people to know about the existence of such sites even if they are already blocked. The facade of freedom is one of its greatest weapons. The existence of search engines that filter these results, such as Baidu, and to a lesser extent, Google.cn will help censorship by improving user experience.

    Also, since climbing the wall is relatively easy, it is convenient to have a search engine that shows you all the results, and if you happen upon one that is blocked, to then scale the wall instead of having to scale the wall all the time (proxies are slow). In this way, an uncensored portal can be said to be facilitating anti-censorship, similar to how piracy portals facilitate piracy without engaging in actual piracy.

    Raj 7,

    If Google’s withdrawal will pressure the Government to remove its censorship, then it will be doing good in its perspective. However, the method of bringing forth such pressure, and the immediate consequence of removal of Google.cn as a choice, is equivalent to a sanction targeted at the populace.

    In one important way, this action targets the populace as opposed to the government more than sanctions placed on Iraq / Iran. Those populace had little real choice between supporting the regime or not: there were heavy consequences. However, in China, Google.com (the only thing I use when I’m in China) is currently not blocked; it is merely slow and prone to time outs if you search sensitive terms.

    But most people have chosen the censored version simply for convenience. To argue that pulling out Google.cn (and possibly putting Google.com behind the firewall) will be doing good from the perspective that the populace will now be forced to change their preference as opposed to the perspective that the government will be forced to loosen up, is disrespectful of the people’s choice and condescending.

  11. Steve Says:

    @ Allen, jxie & Zepplin: Thanks for the answers. They all made a lot of sense and helped me understand the situation much better.

  12. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Jxie #9:
    thanks for the info. That makes my “if’s” in #2 even bigger “if’s”.

    To Zepplin:
    excellent comments.

    You’ve made a compelling argument that many Chinese users forgo what’s truly out there in order to have a better experience in accessing some of what’s out there. Let’s say the CCP does the math, and decides that, current brouhaha notwithstanding, it’s better to let g.cn stay and let people access only what the CCP wants them to access, rather than risking that some might go to the trouble of venturing beyond the fence. In other words, once the dust settles, nothing’s changed.

    Is it Google’s responsibility (whether it be on a corporate, moral, social. altruistic, or any other type of level) to continue to provide a choice which she herself finds unpalatable (if we are to believe the press releases), when 30% of all “choosers” are satisfied with what they have to offer? Would she be breaching such responsibility (on whatever level) if she no longer offers a version of herself up for the choosing, in so doing requiring her previous users to make another choice?

  13. Zepplin Says:

    SK Cheung 12,

    Thanks for your reply.

    If the government’s censorship policies are unchanged or worsens, then Google’s withdraw of Google.cn will hurt the Chinese users that previously used it. This is why I do not like Uln’s ideological argument that Google should pull out no matter what the government response is. However, an argument can be made, and is certainly being made, that Google’s actions will, in the long run, prompt the government to change, thereby providing more freedom to the Chinese people. This is beyond my ability to analyze.

    As for Google’s responsibility, I am of the opinion that the shareholder’s rights are the most important and that Google should not worry about the effect of Google.cn’s removal on Chinese users. In this view, Google’s actions are irreproachable.

    Firstly, the major shareholders Sergey and Larry holds 18% of Google’s shares and 59% of the voting power, and strongly believe in promoting internet freedom. If this action helps them sleep better at night, then it should be given due weight. The minority shareholders might be harmed, but this risk was detailed in the prospectus, SEC can have no complaints.

    Secondly, the action may be beneficial to Google’s shareholders in addition to just allowing Sergey and Larry to feel good. Consider one possible outcome: Google.cn is taken down quietly, and Google retains all its other services and assets such as its sales team, engineers, gmail, Google.com, Android, etc. Google may be loosing some market share in China search, but it will retain a major portion of its China revenue (sales team selling Google.com ads to Chinese companies). This allows Google to show it is sincere in promoting internet freedom when it encounters these issues abroad. This is the baseline withdraw scenario.

    Now, some people will say this scenario is unrealistic since the government will retaliate. My response is that this was a readily achievable outcome. All Google had to do was to quietly tell the government that due to its global image problems, it is no longer profitable to keep censoring in China, negotiate with the government until the inevitable breakdown, then pull Google.cn. This will cause some fuss, but since both sides already know it’s coming, and hey, it’s just business, the fallout will be minimal.

    Instead, Google chose to go public and both surprise and humiliate the Chinese government. This is no rash decision but a deliberate course of action. Therefore, the top brass at Google must have decided that the current situation is even better for them than the baseline scenario. This aggressive approach will generate much more PR and raise the issue of internet freedom to a higher level. It will certainly help their global ex-China strategy. And there is a good chance that the CCP response will be limited and Google can still enjoy its other China operations just like the baseline scenario. Furthermore, Google can cash in some of its domestic politics chips (I don’t need to repeat the Obama-Google connection here) by getting support from the White House to raise global awareness in its core issue. The risk, apparently, was worth it.

    In conclusion, for Google’s management, the humiliate China scenario is evidently preferred to the baseline withdraw scenario, which, for most, is an acceptable alternative to the status quo. Hence, its action is sound, whether this hurts the Chinese people or not.

  14. jxie Says:

    @Zepplin #13

    Consider one possible outcome: Google.cn is taken down quietly, and Google retains all its other services and assets such as its sales team, engineers, gmail, Google.com, Android, etc. Google may be loosing some market share in China search, but it will retain a major portion of its China revenue (sales team selling Google.com ads to Chinese companies).

    It doesn’t work that way. At the bottom of the google.cn page there is an ICP (Internet Content Provider) license # — that’s the license for any Internet outfits in China to get paid. Theoretically you can run the Chinese paid keyword search from the US, and have your customers pay internationally. From a business standpoint, even assuming the legal code in China doesn’t complicate the process, it won’t work too well.

  15. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Zepplin:
    another excellent comment. I was particularly intrigued by your comparison of what Google could’ve achieved without the histrionics, vs whatever additional benefit she felt attainable with the whole public display.

    I agree that there might be short-term pain for some Chinese net users if g.cn leaves. Whether that results in long term gain could certainly be a great item for speculation.

    I particularly agree with your second paragraph. Thanks for the comment. Learned something there.

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