Don’t be evil.
Google possibly has the world’s most recognizable company motto. The notoriety of those three particular words stems from many places of origin: America’s distrust of big tech companies after the Mircrosoft antitrust battle, their compelling simplicity and Google’s unstained record of actually doing the right thing. Well, nearly unstained.
Google famously helped China create a censored version of its search engine for use inside the People’s Republic and came under political and congressional fire for the seeming hypocrisy of believing Google was “a company that is trustworthy and interested in the public good” while simultaneously censoring searches and sanitizing history for the Chinese government.
Many compared them to people complicit in Nazi crimes against humanity, having unclean hands by proxy. To legislators and techies alike, Google appeared to have sacrificed its moral high ground for the sake of the bottom line — a profit margin that promises to be huge in the emerging market of China. Incidentally, its competitors Yahoo and Microsoft had already taken similar steps, but apparently no one expects much in the “don’t be evil” department from either of them.
As I read the headlines coming from Burma, I am reminded of Google’s response to its critics. A little information is better than no information. They claimed it “wasn’t as much a business decision as a decision about getting people information.” A reliable though censored Google in China would be less evil than no Google in China.
While the case in China is a systemic, peacetime issue, the question in Burma relates to information control in a crisis situation. Faced with the largest number of dissidents marching in 20 years and aware that international reports of crackdowns were doing no favors to the military junta’s reputation abroad, the government cut off access to the Internet across the country. This not only blinded the world to many events within the country, but also pulled the veil over the eyes of the Burmese who would possibly join in the activism.
When the Google in China controversy emerged, I couldn’t help but think of this as a binary issue, but I’m now tempted to see it as more of a spectrum. The narrative we are taught in American schools goes something like this: if it’s not a democracy and doesn’t have freedom of assembly or press, it needs some work and should not be trusted or collaborated with. We are the best system, and anyone who falls short must be made to see the error of their ways. Of course, Google’s critics might forget that the American government cooperated with the PRC in the 1970s to tackle and even greater foe, the USSR.
In reality no ideal system exists. Google searches in France and Germany are censored against neo-Nazi searches, and even in the United States one could argue that our consumption of infotainment is not conducive to the heights of civic awareness and virtue. Rather, it seems that in some ways Google was correct. Some information in nondemocratic countries is better than none, and the best they can do is provide the optimum level for the citizens.
The proud American in each of us (yes, I can admit it, there’s one in me, too) would have us ensure emulation of our system in other countries, but I can’t help but compare Burma to China. Neither is a democracy, but at least the latter has a thriving economy, a relatively healthy population and is open about its censorship. Additionally, Google lets users know if their search results have been changed due to government regulation. So it seems that the dominant color of today’s morality is grey.
When companies reach across borders and interact with countries that have varying degrees of freedom and oppression, it seems only the corporate decision makers can hold themselves accountable to make sure they toe the balance correctly.
So what are well-meaning activists to do? Go work for Google? Better yet, they should found new versions, call their own shots and do whatever they will.
Dariush Nothaft is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.