It’s just business

Maybe there’s more to the Google-China story than first meets the eye.

I first learned that Google is a business run by business people when, a few weeks after buying Blogger in 2003, they added a Blog This button to their toolbar. They could have used the open API we had labored to achieve in the blogging world, and then users could have configured the toolbar to work with any blogging tool. No one would have begrudged Google the right to make Blogger the default, but to hard-code it so that it only worked with Blogger, when there was a perfectly good API they could have used instead? That clued me in. These guys are here to make money, and given a choice between doing something clearly good for the Internet (using an open API), they chose not to do it, because it might have meant less of a table-tilt for their own blogging tool. And all this happened just weeks after they promised not to do anything to tilt the table in favor of Blogger. So much for promises.

I’ve been around Silicon Valley long enough to know what this meant. It’s just business. And when China said Google had to censor or be shut out of the Chinese market, they did the sensible business thing, they said okay. This of course is not a problem for Americans, because these rules don’t apply to us, but wait a minute, think it over, maybe they do.

What if

Fast-forward a few years. The Chinese economy is strong, and thanks to all the debt we’ve piled up, and our inefficient work force here in the US, we’re unemployed and they’re working. The Chinese now hold the cards, and they’re concerned that their populace will want the freedoms Americans have. So they agree to keep funding our debt, but with a condition — the US government must enact a law making the Chinese censorship rules apply in the US. If you do it, we don’t call in the loans. If you don’t, start paying the interest and get ready to pay the principle.

Think it can’t happen? Get your head out of the box and read the news. It’s already starting. Now the question is, is it just Google that’s Just a Business, or the whole world? Did our government take a pledge not to be evil (yes, that’s basically what the Constitution says) and assuming they did, did they mean it? (Not this government.)

We always say we’re exporting our way of life to the Chinese, but to me that seems as naive as the expected peace dividend people were talking about at the end of the Cold War.

37 responses to this post.

  1. It may vey well be we look a lot alike, and neither like the Capitalism we think we are maintaining nor the Communism which they cannot contain.
    A third type of State will emerge and encompass the world, “The Servile State”.
    Not my ideas here, but one much smarter in these matters than I, Hilaire Belloc:


  2. […] I am not sure, what Dave Winer is upto, but he is putting out some seriously meaty essays. Good…. we can now sit back and enjoy them. Today, for example, he writes a nice one about why for Google, China is just a business. Funny thing, he and JasonC are on the same page. It’s just business. And when China said Google had to censor or be shut out of the Chinese market, they did the sensible business thing, they said okay. This of course is not a problem for Americans, because these rules don’t apply to us, but wait a minute, think it over, maybe they do. […]


  3. Posted by Ryan on February 1, 2006 at 8:37 pm

    A provocative and worthwhile essay. Here’s a thought exercise: What if Google had had acted purely based on liberty and freedom, ostensibly the highest calling of the present Administration? I know this sounds hopelessly naive, but imagine it.

    Is there any product besides Google that we could withold from the dictators of China that would have more impact? Coca Cola? Windows licenses? Our biggest exports — trash and scrap? No way.

    Google is the one product that could send a crystal clear message about what this country stands for. Imagine the shame on China — the moral message — if a private American company *voluntarily* sacrificied tens of millions in profit out of disgust for a dictator’s oppression.

    And within China — do you think the impact would be negligible? I think not. The impact would be real. Google is one of the few services indispensible to my daily life.

    Would it bring down the dictators? No. Not anytime soon, at least. But how proud it would make me, how righteous I would feel, and how happy I would be to do business with Google. And how touching to see a dent, however small, made by supposedly greedy American capitalists in a system of true oppression and evil.

    Of course, Google did send a crystal clear message at the dawn of 2006. And the shame — the shame is all ours.


  4. Why would the Chinese government want to impose its censorship on the US? American news sources already do a fine job of censoring themselves. Fox News is pretty much equivalent to the Xinhua News Agency.


  5. Ryan that’s interesting, it would only work if the US government enacted a law that made it illegal for all companies to censor their services for foreign governments, otherwise Google’s competitors would just take advantage of it. Google’s board would just fire the CEO and replace him with someone who will represent the shareholder’s interests. And just because teh US had such a law wouldn’t do anything to prevent a European company or for that matter a Chinese company from moving in to fill the gap. It really doesn’t work for a company to take a principled stand, they have to do what the market demands.


  6. Can we not rename any image filename from “tiananmen_square.jpg” to “china.jpg”


  7. Posted by nick on February 1, 2006 at 9:52 pm

    If google were currently censoring their (non-China) search results do you think they would announce it? How would you know?


  8. […] Dave Winer has a post arguing there’s more to Google-China than meets the eye.” […]


  9. Ryan, et. al
    I’m not sure I understand the “if only they’d stuck it to the Chinese and not censored the search results” line of reasoning.

    A) Clearly they either complied with censorship or didn’t get to offer their search services domestically.

    B) Even IF they somehow managed to offer localized Chinese Google without censorhip (again, HOW they would do this is beyond me), China already censors pages at the ISP backbone level. Google’s only doing what Microsoft, Cisco, and Yahoo have all already done.

    I just don’t see what other alternatives they had… “their shame is our shame” is a mildly overdramatic and doesn’t make sense given the circumstances. It’s easy to be idealistic here – we’re not the ones in China.


  10. Ryan, Dave, I’m afraid that withdrawing from China would only kick the Chinese government in their people’s butt…

    Think about the 50’s, the Cold War era. Would cutting off all information to the East have helped? Knowming what’s ‘on the other side’ helps, it gives people goals, it prevents Governments from saying ‘we are the only way’.

    Ok, no Tiannanmen tanks pictures, but I am willing to bet oodles of people are already hard at work looking into ways to circumvent Google filters. Some posts have already appeared analyzing it.

    I think that a little is better than nothing, and keeping lines open will help some stuff filter through…

    Ell that said, yes, Google is a business, but that’s hardly news, no? 😎


  11. Posted by Elle on February 2, 2006 at 8:09 am

    Dave & Others

    Would it make sense for the blogging community to be looking for a way to circumvent attempts to censor the blogworld?

    It seems like, with a dynamic CMS like WordPress, it might be feasible to identify the crawlers associated with censoring search engines, and when responding to them, replace banned words with synonyms or mispellings.

    Anyone know if the Chinese versions of these search sites have their own unique agents?


  12. Elle, I like the way you think. To us censorship is not “just business.”

    I’ll link to this from Scripting News so it gets some attention.


  13. Elle, that was exactly my point.

    Dave, you may want to link to Google Blogoscoped (, they’ve started doing some research on words being watched/censored…


  14. Posted by Ryan on February 2, 2006 at 9:16 am

    Dave and others, It makes me sad to see how widely we have all accepted the idea that “publicly-traded” means “race to the depths of depravity.” The notion that acting like scum always enhances shareholder value is wrong. Dead wrong. This is one of those myths about the market we as Americans take as gospel, because we really know very little about economics, so we create these sweeping generalizations.

    Here are several rational financial arguments in favor of not doing business in China:

    -Google needs to continue to differentiate itself from Yahoo and MSN, particularly as SEOs clog the search results with crap. The moral high ground helps them do this. What do you think “Do no evil” was about? Do you really buy that they let that motto leak out either on accident or for purely moral reasons?

    -The market in China is just not that great. Disposable income is still low, and the return which must be kicked back to a corrupt government is still high. There are a billion people, but most are quite poor, even today. Even those with money are not buying online nearly as much as they are in the U.S., because there is not the social infrastructure to support viable online busineses.

    -Converseley, the damage to Google’s image in the U.S. by cowtowing to China’s dicatatorship has been significant.

    We need to stop making excuses for Google. Moral high ground and “Do Not Be Evil” are the only financial healthy route for the company in the long term, just as those same practices are — long term — the only way to operate for us as individuals.

    Another mental exercise: Consider whether you would allow Google to read your email for ad placement if they had cooperated with the feds the way Yahoo and Microsoft did. Consider whether you would let them index your hard drive. Consider whether you would want them holding the Usenet archive.

    From a purely monetary perspective, Google benefits hugely from being Good, not just good. People bought shares not just *despite* a prospectus/red herring that said the company would not provide financial guidance, and would not think too much about the whims of the stock market, and would not allow much shareholder voice — no, people bought shares *because* of that attitude.

    They recognized a fundamental truth: that an ethically strong company has a long term edge over an ethically weak company. And that the stock market’s systematic failure to reward ethical companies is a distortion of the free market, not a reflection of it.


  15. Posted by Ryan on February 2, 2006 at 9:45 am

    PS Dave what I’m trying to say, in brief, is that you were correct to show the connection between what Google did in China and what they could do in the U.S.

    Most people have a very intimate relationship with Google. It reads our email, it scans our hard drive.

    Many people are also quite scared about the current U.S. government. They don’t see it as a huge leap to compare the repression in the Chinese government with the repression in the U.S. government.

    If Google aids repression in China, it risks losing intimacy with the U.S. consumer, and loss of intimacy means loss of a great many advertising opportunities.

    Which impacts the stock price everyone is so concerned about.


  16. Ryan is right about the China market not being that great for e-commerce. A profitable online pure-play like Amazon, even at a very small scale, is just not possible there. This is partly because there aren’t enough credit cards, partly because people there (rightly) don’t trust companies they’ve never heard of.

    However, search is still the killer app of the Internet and, even though 900 million people there live on a dollar a day, another 400 million have cell phones and well over 100 million have Internet access. That’s second only to the US.

    Shanghai all by itself is 20 million people – almost the size of Canada or Australia.

    Google has two – and only two – options.

    1. Accede to the wishes of the Chinese government, just like every other company there, including Yahoo, MSN and, the largest blog provider in China. This, among other things, allows them to get a .cn domain name.

    2. Do not set up shop in China and hope that the government doesn’t block

    There is no middle ground. You either abide by the law (however odious) or don’t do business there. Which would you prefer?

    And Ryan, if “don’t be evil” is so important to their market value, what’s the “evil” discount on the stock prices of Exxon, Shell and others that reoutinely do business with odious regimes? Would an oil company that refused generate better returns to shareholders? What about the empoyees in developing countries where they have a presence?


  17. Posted by Sean O'Mahony on February 2, 2006 at 10:31 am

    What is it with you Americans and your conspiracy theories?

    Dave states: “The Chinese now hold the cards… …the US government must enact a law making the Chinese censorship rules apply in the US. If you do it, we don’t call in the loans” Ridiculous statement. It simply isn’t going to happen. How you conclude this particular theory from the fact that Google is acquiescing to a Chinese law is beyond me.

    I remember a very similar argument (although not on the subject of information control) in the early 90’s when Japan was at the zenith of its economic influence.

    The United States is the single most important economic power now, and will be well into the foreseeable future. In theory, any holder of US debt (Middle East oil states for example) could play the hand that Dave describes here. However, it’s a zero sum game. You call in the loan and the system collapses. The debt becomes worthless. On a much smaller scale look at the attempts to call in the loan on Argentina in the 90’s. They just thumbed their nose at everyone and said no, not on your terms.

    This isn’t your average mortgage on a house. This is an incredibly sophisticated set of inter-relationships. The United States, for all its faults, is not going to roll over and kowtow to China just because China holds some of its debt.


  18. Sean, I know I’m sounding like a broken wheel, but when you open by saying the other guy is an American with conspiracy theories, you immediately put Americans on the defensive, and call for an equally personal response — which you won’t get. 🙂

    Anyway, think about it this way — the low wages they pay Chinese workers put pressure on the high wages of the American worker, if we want to compete, and we’ve decided so far that we don’t want to compete, so the business goes to China.

    Now an American industry, the online industry, has decided to compete in China, and they are accepting the terms of the competition, which may or may not effect the efficiency of the worker in China. Maybe a worker who doesn’t know about demonstrations in Beijing will be more productive than one who does. And maybe an American who doesn’t know about revisions to the bankruptcy laws might be more efficient.

    I wonder if people being censored always know that they are being censored? (I think the answer is pretty obvious.)


  19. Posted by Ryan on February 2, 2006 at 10:44 am

    Derek, none of the search engines need China or any other particular non-U.S. regime to make their products.

    Also, I can switch from Google to Yahoo with a few key presses.

    Oil is an example of an industry where both the producers and the consumers have severely physically constrained choices.


  20. Posted by Elle on February 2, 2006 at 11:15 am

    This issue seems like it is a major business liability to Google. The move has been universally panned, though other search companies are doing the same thing.

    The reason for the uproar about Google is probably that the company has promoted itself as “not evil”, and people have bought into that idea. By making this move, it undermines the Apple-like reverence people have for the company and its technology.

    Google shareholders have recently lost 9+ billion dollars of value. The China censorship issue may have contributed to this sudden drop.

    Obviously, a big part of that value drop is perception. Google’s earnings are great, but they aren’t as good as investors inflated expectations.

    But earnings aren’t the only reason for the big drop. Google’s recent releases, expecially Google Video, have been lackluster. The controversy over the way it uses copyrighted material hasn’t been dealt with effectively, too.

    The biggest item affecting perception of Google, though, may be the China deal. It sends the message that Google has decided to opt out of the whole “Don’t be evil” thing.

    Here are a few ideas, off the top of my head, on how the blogging community can subvert Google’s censorship – sort of “The Web 2.0 Approach to Dealing with Censorship.”

    Sites publishing content with blocked words could dynamically replace censored words with mispellings or synonyms when they are crawled by Google. (mentioned in earlier comment.)

    Blocked sites could publish their content as special RSS feeds targeting Google China. Aggregators, blogs and splogs would pick this information up, making blocking it nearly impossible.

    A Censored by Google News site might be able to do a diff on the URLs returned by search terms at Google vs. If this was then published as an RSS feed, bloggers could include a Censored by Google news section on their sites automatically.

    An OPML list of blocked sites could be created, along with display plug-ins for the major blog apps. This would add the Censored by Google sites to thousands of blogrolls, and push the sites into the top of Google’s search results. This would also make the censorship all the more obvious, because displays a message when results are omitted from results.

    Blog spell checkers could be be adapted to suggest replacment copy for censored words and phrases.

    Finally, how about a “Censored by Google” badge of honor for the sidebar of sites, blogs or pages that are censored?

    Anybody have other good ideas on ways to subvert, also now known as The Man”?

    PS: Dave – Thanks for the thought-provoking post!


  21. Posted by Sean O'Mahony on February 2, 2006 at 4:39 pm

    Fair enough. It wasn’t meant as a personal — or national — insult.

    In fact, the complete opposite. My view is that you’ve got a much better country and group of active citizens than you have ever had before with more innovation and entrepreneurship than any other nation on the planet. And by the way I’m no supporter of the current administration.

    When Rupert Murdoch (whom I dislike even more than George Bush)at Fox offers you a reactionary TV station what do you guys do.?Develop another way to communicate. Blogging for example. You adapt like no other nation of people have ever done.

    So to respond to your statement “Anyway, think about it this way — the low wages they pay Chinese workers put pressure on the high wages of the American worker, if we want to compete, and we’ve decided so far that we don’t want to compete, so the business goes to China.”

    Of course, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen. I think you DO want to compete but not making plastic boxes, etc. The US economy will yet again adapt and create new ways of doing things, new industries, new jobs. Some high paying, some not so high paying. And by the way… the “they” paying the low wages is you, the average American, not some faceless Chinese factory owner. It’s the same “you” who wants your cheap oranges in Safeway picked by illegal hispanic workers.

    And to be fair to Americans, we Europeans are exactly the same.

    The contradiction in China is business change at the speed of light and glacial social change. This is not a sustainable imbalance and a correction is due to take place. Google is not important enough to influence this change so they might as well operate in China along with everyone else.


  22. Thanks for coming back in a friendly way.

    But you still aren’t getting my point. 🙂

    What if it turns out that the Chinese are more competitive at the kinds of jobs we like to do here if their government keeps certain distractions from them via censorship. How would we like it if our government did that to us?

    I’m saying that there *may* be a hidden cost to looking the other way at Chinese censorship. it may come back to bite us in the butt.


  23. Posted by Sean O'Mahony on February 2, 2006 at 5:50 pm

    It must be a discussion between two men! Well we are obviously not getting each other’s points. Hence the need for such a discussion 😉

    I agree. Censorship is fundamentally wrong.

    And your last point is the one I agree with most. However, it’s not *may*, it’s *when* because there is a definite cost to looking the other way. As a way of example let’s consider the whole Middle East oil relationship. Saudi Arabia censors, tortures, represses the rights of women to name but a few dysfunction’s and we are now paying a very high price — both economically and in terms of international relations — for turning a blind eye all these years because all we want is the oil.

    Getting back to your essay and my original point of disagreement. I think you are putting too much weight on the ability of the Chinese government to influence US society.

    Having said that, I believe such an ability exists except it’s within rather than without. If we move one or two steps back up the Chinese manufacturing food chain we find the likes of Wal-Mart, etc.

    And just a comment on what Elle said earlier (not indended to be negative toward you Elle). The ‘no evil’ mission statement of Google. You can’t stick that in a as a modus operandi for a publically traded company and think we’re all going to gleefully bop along. I try not to be too cynical but please.

    I’m no great fan of Microsoft but Bill Gates has shown great generosity with his donations to immunisation campaigns in Africa. No mission statement here, just actions. I prefer those any day of the week.


  24. Spelling variations of “Tiananmen Square” are currently still getting through to the results page of, the Chinese people would not enter this in English they will enter it in Cantonese or Mandarin characters at least the majority will with the Simplified or Traditional Chinese character sets available on a computer.

    The only way I see to be able to play against Google and any other search provider in this game of censorship is to go to the lowest common denominator by changing your stories, images and posts with a word/character that Google cannot block such as China or 瓷

    Once you have your entries ‘tagged’ with that style Google has two options, 1. Block the Word/Character from searches outside of China or 2. Block your entire post or site. This will be extremely hard for Google as if they censor a citizen from the US they will have hell to pay for this in all forms of the media and business. I am in Australia and they would have hell to pay here, this type of censorship would cost a search engine heavily if they did this type of ‘evil’

    Currently the search censorship that has been implemented by the search company’s is in its infant stages and as the Chinese Government start to refine this process it will get greater in complexity, that is why I see this tactic that I have stated as something that should be done sooner than later. If we step up to the plate and do this before the search company’s implement new filters we are the people who are leading this form of democracy. If we just change our tactics after the filters are updated then we are the ones playing catch up. I would rather the search company’s chase us than we chase them. We can lead now or follow later. I would rather lead now.


  25. Posted by David on February 3, 2006 at 6:19 am

    Paul M. seems to be a troll. He can’t be serious.

    I for one have de-emphasized the Google link on my LinkCenter.

    It’s only a small move, but multiplied by millions it would have an effect.


  26. David, he’s just expressing a point of view. Don’t make unnecessary personal accusations, that’s how discussions end up in the weeds. 🙂


  27. Im sure if China had that much power over the US it wouldn’t be censorship laws they would be worried about…


  28. BTW for anyone who’s curious, I have a post about how to search for Tianenmen using Chinese characters at


  29. Posted by Trebor on February 3, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    Here’s something to ponder…

    The US government refuses to conduct free trade with Cuba because they are communist, but yet conducting free trade with China and Vietnam is considered vital and harmonious to international relations.

    I’ve long ago quit using Google or any service they own. They are not just another company. Google would like nothing more than to control the world’s online information. I have a fundamental problem with control.


  30. Posted by Mark on February 4, 2006 at 9:14 am

    My country is built on stolen lands farmed by slaves. We are the only nation to have targeted civilians with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Some might call that evil, but most of us justify it as “just business.” Regardless, neither view changes the substance of the acts.


  31. what about all the rainforest being chopped down in the amazon to grow soybeans to sell to China?


  32. Posted by Joe Mc. on February 16, 2006 at 7:23 am

    I think all those U.S. companies involved in helping china repress and
    now also inprison their citizens ( for taking a position in support for
    human rights and freedom ) should have their ceo’s fired, boards
    replaced, and companies disbanded spliting up and selling its technology
    to it U.S. competitors who have demonstrated better judgment in the
    cause of human rights. Oh yeah this makes me hot under the collar…
    Can anyone suggest an alternative search engine to google that I could use
    that doesn’t profit in aiding the destruction of freedom and human rights?
    I’m ready to make a change, are you?

    How do those in china who champion (or are drawn to the notion of) freedom and human rights feel when their prime example and goal is to be
    as free as “the U.S.” allow their corporate imbasitors to not only help in the repression of these people, but also profit in the act of singling them out to
    china’s government for torture and jail sentences?

    And another serious thought:
    What happens when these companies have peaked in their investments in researching, creating and deploying their repressive technologies in china and they are no longer making financial gains hand over fist from china’s government?
    Do you think they will not try to sell their technology to other governments so they can triple their profits ( not needing to pay to reinvent their wheel of repression ) ?
    Do you think they will use the wealth they’ve acumulated from china’s government to lobby even our countries government to adopt their repressive technologies? ( patriot act? )

    Or, do think their board of major investors will calmly say, “well that was nice run. Let just throw away that research now since all the countries left to market to are free societies?”

    Your thoughts?


  33. […] Firefox started misbehaving, so I thought — let’s go download a fresh install. Guess what’s waiting for me: no choice but to install the Google Toolbar. Remember what they said about their hack, if you don’t like it, don’t install it. Well, there it is. Where’s the choice now. Back then I couldn’t get anyone to listen. Letting Google modify our content to add links to their sites was a very bad idea then, now maybe others get that too? Now that they’re doing it for the Chinese censors. Why do you guys trust Google so much. They’re a corporation; they’ll do whatever they have to do to make money, do you think the integrity of your writing is even the smallest little issue for them? I don’t. Now here I am and so are you. Someday you’ll have to run the Google Toolbar. Today I don’t have to, I can accept a misbehaving browser, or I can learn how to uninstall it after the fact (good luck, I still have some Google crap from the Desktop Search product that I can’t uninstall), or switch to another browser, or back to Windows. At least Microsoft isn’t fucking with my integrity (and yours) the way Google is.  […]


  34. Posted by Joe Mc. on February 16, 2006 at 11:00 am

    Sorry, Microsoft is messing with your integrity as well…
    Microsoft has our government by the short hairs right now.
    So much so, they can dictate legal presidence in our system of justice.
    If it act like a monopoly, talks like a manopoly, and walks like a manopoly…
    It is a manopoly! Why do you think Microsoft has gotten away with ignoring
    antitrust laws, industrial espienage laws, and laws protecting smaller companies from strong-arm tactic which force them out of business (such as: mircosoft explore, microsoft auto-matic updates (security?), microsoft media player, etc… ). They also seem to have latey cossied up with google one of the anti-freedom fighters in china. The reason our government has its hands tied with it dealings with microsoft is, Microsoft told them if you rule against us on any of these anti-trust suits we will be forced to develope an entirely new operating system which would comply with the current laws. Our government replied, “that would be great”. Microsoft bassically then mentioned to our government that doing this would cost our company so much we could no longer support any older versions of our operating system which would force countless consumers, companies, and even government who are very deeply dependent on our products to either buy :

    1.) a different brand of operating system.
    a.) Which would also include every network device that currently doesn’t
    work with the new brand, or is no longer supported by microsoft.
    b.) Send all their employees to training courses for the new operating
    system and any other technology that had to be implemented to
    replace all the microsoft dependent software they had.
    c.) re-evaluate all government contracts and ensure they are developing
    technology with legal operating systems.


    2.) everyone in the country can now buy our lastest and greatest operating
    system at an upscale price our stock holders will meet on monday
    morning to set.
    a.) still applies from above.
    b.) still applies from above.
    c.) still applies from above.

    So, Mr. Congress man/woman says, “well, maybe we could make a deal..”


  35. Posted by Joe Mc. on February 16, 2006 at 11:20 am

    I just switched my home page from to,
    I’m already feeling better about the cause of freedom. 🙂
    Just the tip of the iceberg, but a start!

    I challenge all of you to do the same!
    Find and alternative to using any of the corporations fighting against freedom in china or else where.

    here are some ideas:
    switch from ——> switch to ——> ——>
    sysco ——> ?

    and if you really want to make a difference read up on a company
    in washington state called “Circumvent” (spelling may be off).
    They are giving away free software to help the freedom loving people
    of china to circumvent the chinesse governments intrusions into their privacy.

    Any way you do it, JUST GET INVOLVED!


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