Google exists or exits

Apr 2010 | No Comment

A household name with its ever pervading presence on the internet, Google has revolutionised our lives. Their ever increasing bouquet of offerings and services has had an impact on net users across the world. Google follows its own core principles and has been able to play a pivotal role in information access across many parts of the world.

The sixth of Google’s ten principles – ‘you can make money without doing evil’, has been brought into sharp focus by the consequences of a hacking incident that happened in December 2009. Google alleged that China was behind the attack. Although no one supports hacking, in the aftermath of the incident the ‘role of Google in China’ came under the arc lights, and a new perspective seems to emerge.

The degrees of evil

See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil – a Gandhian principle many of us may think we follow. And it could well be true since our perceptions of ‘evil’ differ. It is therefore difficult to arrive at a universal definition of evil. There has to be a context to the situation. It is for this reason that Google’s stance that it wants to pull out of China because it is no more willing to go along with what is sees as the ‘evil’ ways of the Chinese authorities is a little difficult to digest. From the gigabytes of information available on the issue one thing is clear, what Google considers ‘evil’, China does not. So the question is who is going to decide? Public view is divided.

The other degrees…

Today, information is not only a powerful tool it is a mutli-billion dollar business in which many want a stake. But information is not dealt with in the same way by all, some countries exercise more control and others less. The controls exist – it is only a question of degree. It is our perceptions which make us brand some countries more open and liberal and others as authoritarian vis-à-vis information access and dissemination.

Every country also has a legal framework which is binding on its citizens and residents. Here again some countries are considered to have ‘liberal’ laws and others are considered ‘rigid’. But again, the laws exist everywhere.

‘When in Rome do as the Romans’

The ideal place to do business would therefore be a country where the controls are less and the laws are liberal. Unfortunately this combination is not available everywhere and therefore like everyone else the businesses also have to make the best of an available situation.

Here comes the question of how much businesses are really willing to adapt to local conditions. The universal truth is that businesses need to make a profit, but the hard truth is that those who can carry the locals along have more staying power. And for this, mere lip service is not enough, one has to be more attuned to the ‘peculiarities and sensibilities’ of the locals. It is more about being ‘acceptable’ than anything else.

Doing business therefore is not a ‘black and white’ issue, there are always shades of grey, as the business ‘adapts’ to various situations, to well – stay in business. Google seemed to move into this ‘grey’ area when they decided to ‘compromise’ on their principles and enter China in 2006. They did make an attempt to adapt to the local situation, but the compromise does not seem to have worked very well.

The ‘panacea’ syndrome

Google might see themselves as the champions for the ‘information freedom’. There is no denying that they have been pioneers in information services propagation. But ultimately they are only a service provider mandated to do business in China. Stepping beyond this mandate seems to be a ‘step out of line’. The ‘prescriptive’ mindset where we believe that ‘our’ way is not just the ‘best’ way, but also should be the ‘only’ way leaves little room for dialogue or manoeuvrability. The current impasse has highlighted the issues of information flow in China, but then these are issues that the Chinese people need to address with their Government. What role Google thinks it can play here, is not clear.

The ambiguity cloak

With their ever expanding services, Google has earned tremendous accolades, but they have also received their fair share of brickbats. They have faced criticism from various parts of the world for issues ranging from security to privacy concerns. They have responded to these concerns, in weeks months or years depending on how much pressure was put on them and by whom. Google still does not have a universal policy for addressing these concerns, they ‘respond’ as and when the issues are raised or brought to their notice. The ‘get away with it if you can’ attitude does not bode well for any business. It is here that the boundaries between legal-illegal are easier to define, but those between right-wrong and ethical-unethical get blurred. Littering in Singapore is a legal offence; you litter you pay a fine, case closed. Is littering right? Would you litter just because no one is keeping tabs on you? That is where ones own ‘morals’ come into play.

Drawing the line

In the present situation China’s stand is clear – follow the law of the land and you are welcome to do business in the country. But then, this is also the stand of every ‘liberated’ country on the planet! In a similar disagreement with another country where dependence on a service like Google is high, the story would probably have panned out quite differently. China simply does not seem to care!

Shubhra Kingdang and Bal Krishna

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Where navigation meets the world, NRSC User Interaction Workshop 2010
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