My fellow interviewee and former Google employee Brendan Downey made some very good points when speaking on BBC Newsnight yesterday. Btw shout out to the BBC for promoting me to Associate Professor. While it is challenging to make a deeper coherent argument in less than 90 seconds, I felt it was a good conversation.
A Western tech powerhouse such as Google legitimizing China’s “Great Firewall” by introducing a censored search engine is most certainly reason for concern. Predicting the long-term effects of a potential re-entry of Google in the Chinese market, however, appears challenging.
Since Google exited in 2010, Chinese authorities have critically upped their level of censorship all by themselves, without the support of any Western company. Thus, it is unclear why the presence of a Google search engine would make matters worse than the status quo.
Contrary, disclaimers as constant reminders of censorship and supervision could potentially contribute to a desire for change of a critical mass. Moreover, the observation which topics provoke disclaimers could foster the gain of additional information within the country. From a more general perspective, market presence of strong global brands in a country in which most companies are state-run seems desirable.
It seems naive to believe that when Google exited China in 2010 under co-founder Sergey Brin, they did so mainly due the forced censorship of content. Many believe that Chinese-led cyber-attacks on its customers, specifically human-rights activists, and Google itself were the primary reason for Google’s backtracking.
In a letter Google’s employees demand to participate in ethical reviews of the company’s practices. This seems to be a brilliant idea going forward. But let’s recall that we are talking about a censored search engine as well as a news aggregation app. Neither of these likely would increase censorship when compared to the status quo but potentially offer upside. If Google though were to offer products such as email accounts or cloud services and allow Chinese authorities to access private customer information, this would turn the tides dramatically for the worse.