and “Don’t be evil”

Here’s a little something think about and e-mail to all of your friends of neighbours over the next few days. June 2009, you will recall, has the unfortunate pleasure of marking the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Uprising. Many people were hurt, killed, and repressed. But, as a good friend noted when he forwarded me this article, many more today don’t even realize it happened or just consider it only a tiny blip on the way to domestic prosperity. Mirroring this sentiment is a post that a user at LIS News made that links to Frontline‘s 2006 exposé on Google’s self-censorship on keyword searches on  This page is a stirring reminder that Google’s mantra of “Don’t be evil” is often lost in translation or subordinated to a footnote in a corporate annual report.

Looking at the screenshots that Frontline made in 2006 is a good way to put our love for Google in check. So many of us (and I count myself in this bunch) are inextricably tired to various Google products and apps, from its powerful index and search engine to its free e-mail service and RSS reader. Google makes the Internet so easy to work with that we hardly notice the tidy profit they make from our love for their wares. Yet, when we are given a chance to take a serious look at what Google does to its own index of the Internet so that it may increase its market share in foreign or closed markets, we can see clearly that Google and “Don’t be evil” aren’t tied to the hip like we like to believe they are.

I’m not going to cut-and-paste Frontline’s images into this post because I think it’s important that you visit the Frontline website for yourself – continued traffic will hopefully give them pause to keep this page up for a rather long time. When you do make it there, however, I’m confident you’ll be at least a tiny bit shocked to see firsthand what Google sacrificed in order to enter the domestic Chinese market. Self-censorship has become key to the Google business model in China. Searching for “Tiananmen Square” in Google’s image database from a café in Chengdu won’t retrieve links to the ubiquitous photo of the anonymous student who confronted a column of tanks as it would in Toronto, London or Rome but will rather show warm photos of the tourist site. Meanwhile, searching for “Falun Dafa” will not return a single hit. In order to maintain a place in the Chinese market, Google restricts access to its database and sees higher ad rates and click-throughs (and presumably a healthier bottom line) in the long run.

That’s the problem with Google and “Don’t be evil.” Sitting in our offices and cozy living rooms and dens and bedrooms here in the West, we don’t notice that Google has self-censored and altered access to its index. We hear about this from time to time, but it hardly affects us, so we tend to forget about it. Google China‘s practices isn’t doing any harm to you or I, and they’re certainly not doing any harm to its shareholders’ ROI, but they are actively restricting the type of information that can be retrieved for millions of Internet users on the other side of world.

This is perhaps one of the largest reminders we have that corporate interests are not always aligned with the interests of the people. Think for a second who controls the way you access information on the Internet, from your local service providers to search engines to backbone consortia. The Internet isn’t free and Google isn’t benevolent. Remember that the next time you might look for something controversial in an index.