Some grown-up questions for Google

About the author
Becky Hogge is a freelance writer and broadcaster. She is the former executive director of the Open Rights Group, a London-based campaigning organisation that fights for civil and consumer rights in the digital age. She was previously the managing editor, and then technology director, of openDemocracy.net. She blogs here, and co-presents acclaimed London radio show Little Atoms. Her first book, Barefoot into Cyberspace, was published in summer 2011

So it turns out Google is evil after all. Like a toddler who's just caught Santa beating up his little helper round the back of the grotto, the geek community reacted as one when Google entered the Chinese market with its censored google.cn service last Wednesday. Anger and disbelief quickly gave way to a sense of abandonment and fear, and as Daddy sat us down for a grown-up talk about publicly-owned companies, market economies and shareholder rights, we felt our tiny little world dissolve into a new, scarier reality. Now we've all had our little cry, what next?

It's time to start asking a few grown-up questions. Such as why were we naive enough to trust a company with such a pithy motto in the first place? "Don't be evil," in retrospect, sounds more like the profile of a twelve-year-old's alter ego in a massive multi-player online game than the corporate ethos of the fastest-growing company in the world. What did it actually mean? And what does it mean now?

To the geek mind, the secret to Google's success lies in its combination of really cool technology and the kind of feel-good politics that won't burst the San Francisco bubble. Not only does the patented PageRank system solve the problems of information overload on the net, but engineers who work for Google can seemingly keep the system going whilst playing table tennis and drinking Kool-Aid all day.

Also by Becky Hogge, managing editor of openDemocracy:

"Democracy and dissent at the World Intellectual Property Organisation" (April 2005)

"The great firewall of China" (May 2005)

"Mozilla's 'magic pixie dust'" (with Hamza Khan-Cheema, September 2005)

Open source nation” (interview with Geoff Mulgan, September 2005)

"Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace"
(November 2005)

"The online public finds its voice"
(November 2005)

"Global voices: blogging the world"
(December 2005)

"The abuse of "fair use"" (January 2006)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

For non-techies, the fact that Google can avoid ill-gotten venture capital by making its own money, through giving small retailers entry to the worldwide marketplace, means it is on the side of the little guy. And the "release early, release often" ethos of the company's recent slew of new applications (is anything offered by Google not still in beta?), plus the fact Google advises engineers to spend twenty percent of their time doing whatever they feel like doing, means it is every developer's dream job.

In fact, nothing about Google has ever been this fluffy. As Andrew Brown recently reported on openDemocracy, Google collects mountains of IP-address-linked data about the search behaviour of all its customers. The more services you sign up for with Google (Gmail, Desktop, Homepage) the more Google knows about you, knowledge that it shares with third parties, for example, to make better-targeted ads. This is its core business model, and the reason why small ads are so successful. To keep our information flowing into the Googleplex, Google relies on a high level of either ignorance or (one hopes, more likely) trust from its users.

My thanks go to openDemocracy reader and friend Tony Curzon Price, and (indirectly) to the US Department of Justice, for pointing out what "Don't be evil" might really mean in this context. Because what Google is promising with "Don't be evil" is that it will respect the privacy of its users, rather than that it will work night and day for freedom of speech around the globe.

To find out the extent to which Google avoids "evil" by respecting privacy, we need to read the small print. Our expectations might run along the lines of "Yes, Google, please use my search data to target unobtrusive ads that suit my needs as a consumer but no, please don't reveal that I spend all day searching for dissident/anarchic/Islamist views on global capitalism to George W Bush/Islam Karimov/Hu Jin Tao". But what Google's privacy policy actually states is that "Google only shares personal information with other companies or individuals outside of Google [if, among other things] we have a good faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of such information is reasonably necessary to satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request."

Anyone familiar with the case of Shi Tao, the Chinese journalist jailed on the strength of data handed over to the Chinese authorities by Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) in April last year, should be hearing alarm bells ringing right about now. Although Google is currently preparing to fight a subpoena demanding a fairly innocent quorum of search data be handed to the Bush administration in the San Jose Federal court, it should be noted that the network of applicable laws, regulations, legal processes or enforceable governmental requests that the Chinese regime has at its disposal in terms of invading its citizens' privacy are rather more robust than those afforded to the governors of the land of the free.

So our next question should be, how much data are you logging about your new Chinese customers, Google? And what will you do when the Chinese authorities ask you to hand it over? In fact, this question has already been put privately to a senior contact at Google by British web commentator Bill Thompson, who is awaiting a response.

The questions don't end there. Google has obviously been taking a lot of time and care with its launch in China. In June 2004 it bought a 2.4% stake in China's biggest search engine, Baidu, to get a feel for the place. Then, in April 2005, it paid a rather large sum of money (in Chinese terms) to wrest control of the google.cn domain name from an enterprising cyber-squatter. And in September last year Google saw off a lawsuit from Microsoft to secure the services of the latter's Vice President, Lee Kai-Fu, as Google's man in China. Kai Fu was joined by Johnny Chou, with the aim of building a fifty-strong research and development team inside PRC.

This is slow progress in contrast to the activities of the company's western arm. Since going public in August 2004, the company has released over a dozen products, including Google Maps, Google Web Accelerator, Google Homepage, Google Sitemaps, Google Earth, Google Talk, Google Desktop, Google Base, Google Book Search, Google Video and Google Pack. So what has Google been up to in China during those eighteen months?

One clue might lie in the feature of google.cn that sets it apart from the other global search providers, like MSN and Yahoo!, operating inside China. This feature – much lauded in the official statements given by Google on the day of the launch – is that google.cn tells its customers when their search results have been "filtered". How Google got that concession from the Chinese authorities might go some way to explaining why it took so long to release google.cn. But the question then has to be, what did Google offer in return?

China has plenty of technical know-how of its own, and is clearly prepared to use the network for its own ends. The Chinese authorities currently stand accused of endorsing attempts to hack into British and US government files, in what the UK Guardian called "a massive hit and run raid on the world's intellectual property to aid their booming economic growth". This heightens suspicions that denial-of-service attacks on Japanese websites, such as the official website of the controversial Yasukuni shrine, emanate from China and have the tacit approval of the Chinese authorities. China's censorship machinery goes far beyond the well-documented 50,000 officials and volunteers that watch the web to censor content, and incorporates choke points in the communications network that allow data to be filtered packet by packet.

Back in May last year, I asked this question: "If these two experts in internet traffic – Google in cataloguing it and China in censoring it – start working together, what can we expect?" The time for an answer approaches. In the meantime, we need to make sure we're asking the grown-up questions – about privacy, about data retention, about aspects of the deal Google have struck with the Chinese authorities that aren't hitting the headlines, and about the activities that will take place in Google's new research and development lab in China. And we need to ask them not just for the sake of the people of China, but for the sake of the internet as a safe space for free speech across the world.