We don't yet know whether Google will remain in China. Google's top attorney, David Drummond, says the company is negotiating with the Chinese government to ease some controls it maintains on the Internet and may have a decision within weeks.
I doubt if much will come of it. There can be no significant progress with China on the censorship issue. China is run by an isolated dictatorship, and the country has never had western-style freedoms. The Chinese Communist Party sees nothing wrong with controlling information and restricting free speech.
In fact, David Bandurski, an analyst with the China Media project, tells the New York Times that control of information has become even more important to the Chinese government recently. (Yeah, I'd say that's probably since the Olympics, now that it doesn't have to worry so much about world opinion. Remind me again how holding the Olympics there was supposed to make China more open?)
The Chinese censors are so entrenched they're laughable to outsiders like us. The NYTimes says that the Global Times, backed by the Chinese Communist Party, wrote an article about how the whole Google issue was initiated by the U.S. government as a joint campaign to take over the world:
“As the global landscape is undergoing profound irreversible shifts, the calculated free-Internet scheme is just one step of a U.S. tactic to preserve its hegemonic domination,” Yan Xuetong, who heads the Institute of International Studies at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, said in the article.
(Unfortunately, you can't find that article on the Chinese publication's web site. The most recent article on that site mentioning Yan Xuetong that I can find through a Google search is one dated August 10, 2009: (Global Times - Think tank scholar has more fresh ideas than old shoes).)
And I didn't even know that old shoes had fresh ideas.
That puts Google into a Chinese Pickle. If it remains in China now, it will take a big PR hit. If it does back out, Microsoft gets the PR hit because Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer have been shrugging their shoulders and asking What's So Bad About Censorship? Bill's latest comment to the NYTimes: If Google pulls out of China, "What point are they making?"
So Google will not be able to claim it has made any progress with the Chinese government in the next few weeks. Sergey Brin has never been comfortable going along with the regime and would certainly like to abandon ship there. But if Google does leave China behind, it loses all chance of trying to improve the flow of information within China. That's a task that has but a sliver of a chance of success in the next decade or two anyway, but who knows what will happen in the next few decades?
But here's the real problem. Google--and all major online services--are voluntary censors. The Chinese must find it strange that Google can't publish books in the U.S. and Europe that are out of print because of copyright laws. In Germany, Google must censor neo-Nazi sites from its search engine (and who complains about that?)
In fact, some people complain when Google doesn't censor offensive stuff. A couple of years ago, management refused to block the search engine from pointing people to an anti-Semitic site called JewWatch. Bloggers angrily decried that decision as essentially condoning evil. Sergey (who is Jewish) publicly defended the company's position as an anti-censorship stance. And, of course, all the publicity increased traffic to the offensive site.
But sometimes, Sergey feels the company has no choice but to remove material. Several years ago, for example, the Church of Scientology made a copyright claim against an anti-Scientology site that had excerpted text from the Church's writings. Sergey saw it as a free speech issue but had to back down because the anti-Scientology site did, removing the material rather than fighting.
So who is right? What's the right thing to do? Unfortunately this is close to a no-win game for Google. The best it can do is make the issue a loser for Microsoft.
Unless Sergey can pull a fresh idea out of his shoe.