22
Jan
2010

Google In China Is Better Than No Google In China

Uln of CHINAYOUREN has yet another well-written post surrounding the recent Google debacle. Richard of The Peking Duck praised it especially for doing a good job explaining why Chinese internet users in general don’t feel compelled to hop over the Great Firewall that controls what they can or cannot see on the internet. Richard also claims Uln “shatters – to his own satisfaction, at least – the widely held belief (shall we call it a “meme”?) of many English-language China bloggers that a censored google.cn was far better than no google.cn.” From Uln’s post:

The most amusing thing in the Google crisis is all the commentators crying about the loss of Google.cn and its negative consequences for the freedom of the Chinese.

No.

Wrong.

At least for this English-language China blogger.

I don’t believe that a censored Google.cn is far better than no Google.cn, much less cry about it.

I believe that Google in China is better than no Google in China. I cry about the loss of Google in China and its negative consequences for the freedom of the Chinese. It isn’t about the loss of Google.cn itself. There are several reasons, which I’ll get to in a second.

Evil is Search Engine Manipulation with Google’s name on it

But first, Uln’s argument is that the loss of Google.cn is a good thing for Chinese users because Google.cn engages in search engine manipulation (SEM). In other words, while the “engine” underneath Google.cn is the same as Google.com, the results shown are different, manipulated under agreement with the Chinese government censors to hide results the Chinese government finds objectionable and doesn’t want its populace to see. An internet user in China using Google.com would be able to see all the results but might get blocked when he or she tries to click on a result that leads to a blocked website. The user would be reminded of the government’s censorship. However, an internet user in China using Google.cn would see only manipulated results, effectively hiding both the information and the censorship. That Google.cn explicitly notifies users when results are manipulated is dismissed by Uln as being largely inconsequential because users begin to ignore it or it is often placed below the list of results.

These are all valid criticisms of Google.cn and, by extension, Google itself. Uln argues that this compromises the integrity of the Google brand name and value proposition (do no evil, we provide information, etc.) thereby betraying the trust of its Chinese users who see the Google name slapped on Google.cn as meaning something about the information Google.cn will provide. Uln writes:

When you type a “sensitive” term and G.cn removes all the results except the People’s Daily and Xinhua, Google’s responsibility is double: not only it supports those often objectible views on the first page, but it also implicitly states that it is the ONLY opinion existing in the World.

And the worse is, the Chinese who believed that would be right to do so, because Google’s well known principles clearly specify their commitment to give all the information available  in a democratic way.

G.cn is a shame for Google and it is probably the single most evil page on the Chinese internet (because it manipulates just like Baidu, but lends the brand name of Google to the manipulation).

But is a loss of Google.cn a good thing?

No.

Google.cn is Choice

Google.cn represents choice. It gives Chinese internet users another option for searching the web other than Baidu. Yes, there is Yahoo and there is Bing but neither of them are remotely as big as Google.cn, even if Google.cn is second place to Baidu. It gives Chinese internet users access to Google’s internet indexing and search methodology and algorithms. Even as Google.cn suffers the same manipulation of potentially displayed search results as Baidu, it provides different ordering and ranking of displayed search results.

This different ordering and ranking is precisely one of the main reasons why Google beat Yahoo and other search engines (MSN Search, Ask.com, etc.) elsewhere in the world. Google’s search engine returned better sorted and more relevant search results to users. Why continue finding your answers in the 3rd or 5th Yahoo search result when Google gave it to you in its first result? People started using Google because it delivered what they were looking for more efficiently.

That’s what a good search engine is about, providing the best search results for any given user inputted query, and Google is a good search engine.

Yes, having incomplete search results due to government-mandated self-censorship is bad, but Chinese users are not searching for potentially censored or blocked material all day long on Google.cn. They, you know, use it to do other fairly mundane things that don’t get the Chinese government censors’ panties in a twist. They look up news on celebrities, research product information, find the latest scores to last night’s NBA game, etc. etc. etc. Google.cn provides a valuable service to its users in China because it still helps them find the information they are looking for using qualitatively different and valuable methodology and algorithms than Baidu.

Google.cn gives Chinese internet users a choice.

Choice is freedom.

Losing Google.cn is a loss of choice.

Less choice is less freedom.

Therefore, loss of Google.cn is arguably a negative consequence for the freedom of the Chinese. It may even be something worth crying about.

The reason why “a censored google.cn is better than no google.cn” is exactly this. Google.cn still provides different results of value in the vast majority of Chinese web searches. This was very much part of the whole utilitarian argument that Google gave for agreeing to market and censor Google.cn in the first place. Even with the same scrubbed search results as Baidu, Google still has some competitive advantage worth offering to Chinese netizens through Google.cn.

No, the competitive advantage isn't only Chinese-specific Google logos.

Without Google.cn, its users will switch to Google.com, which is better anyway

Uln argues that…

Google.com is a Search Engine that is:

1- Exactly as good quality as Google.cn (identical index)
2- Without the manipulation of Google.cn
3- AND much less censored than Google.cn

…which is definitely true.

So, like Uln, some people may be asking why Chinese users use the self-censored Google.cn instead of the freely accessible Google.com? Uln answers:

And the only reason why Chinese don’t use it is that Google.cn sounds more Chinese to them, and they just don’t care enough.

No, it isn’t because Google.cn sounds more Chinese to them, it is because Google.cn is more Chinese to them.

I don’t think there’s enough emphasis given to display language being a major reason why people prefer Google.cn over Google.com. The vast majority of Chinese internet users instantly feel intimidated and overwhelmed by any website that is not written in Chinese. This is a big reason why Chinese people say “Google.cn is for the Chinese”. We can’t underestimate the importance of first impressions.

“But you can change the interface language of Google.com to Simplified Chinese…”

Never underestimate the importance of first impressions.

Hell, people even cite “google” being hard to spell for Chinese people as being a reason why Google is behind Baidu. Ever wonder why Google owns g.cn?

I feel there’s a tenuous compromise between the CCP censors and Google right now that allows Google.com to remain freely accessible despite it not providing the same manipulated search results as Google.cn. This is as long as the majority of Chinese internet users willingly head for Google.cn, as long as they see Google.cn as being tailored specifically for them, the Chinese. It’s like the GFW still allowing proxies to work so long as it achieves its mission with blocking the vast majority. The CCP information control scheme is not about preventing everyone from knowing certain things, it’s about preventing too many people from knowing certain things.

If Google.cn is no more and this leads former Google.cn users to simply migrate to Baidu, then maybe — just maybe — Google.com will remain freely accessible in China. However, if it results in too many former Google.cn users subsequently adopting and using Google.com, the CCP will indeed worry.

So a question then is how much will Google push the envelope with an unblocked Google.com. After all, Google will still have a business necessity and plan for capturing Chinese internet users, right? Even if Google does nothing to appeal to mainland Chinese users, leaving it the way it is, it could still get blocked if too many mainland users flock to it. If Google, however, intentionally seeks to make Google.com user-friendly enough to bring in substantial Chinese people to search and get its non-manipulated results, then it will be seen as a threat to the Chinese government’s efforts to control information and thus it will definitely face the possibility of being blocked outright.

And when that happens, Uln’s conclusion here

Most probably the disappearance of G.cn will push the present G.cn users to switch to G.com, and the outcome will be increased freedom in the Chinese internet.

…will definitely look short-sighted and naive.

His argument isn’t hard to understand, though. Uln argues that this forced migration from a shut-down Google.cn to Google.com is a good thing because Google.com at least offers non-manipulated search results. Even if the Chinese users still can’t click through to the blocked websites due to the GFW, at least they can see and read the search result excerpts and, more importantly, know that such information exists out there. They would at least be aware of the existence of those dissenters and dissenting opinions that the Chinese government ideally doesn’t even want them to be aware of. That’s more freedom, right? That’s good, right?

That’s more freedom, right? That’s good, right?

Yeah, that’s good. It’s better than nothing.

Yeah, except until the Chinese government realizes that, blocks Google.com, and it indeed becomes nothing.

Nothing for the Chinese internet user. No Google.cn, no Google.com, no Google search methodology and algorithms. Only Baidu.

No choice.

No freedom.

Of course, Uln acknowledges such near the end of his post:

On the other hand, some commenters are already saying that I am too optimistic, and that the CCP will quickly come to the same conclusion I have come and block Google.com.

Without Google.com, the Chinese will learn of the Great Firewall and how to get around it, which is better anyway

But Uln continues:

The good news is that EVEN if they do block Google.com, the situation will still be better than today. The Chinese Google users will start to miss the G, and they will start to use web proxies to access Google.com, expanding their use and making the Chinese net population more conscious of the GFW and of the ways to cross it.

I’m not so sold on that situation still being better than the situation today. It is extremely optimistic, almost unreasonably so, to think a blocking of Google.com will by itself, or through the former Google users, make the general Chinese internet populace more conscious of the GFW and of the tools that could be used to cross it. Remember, most of the Chinese internet doesn’t use Google. It wouldn’t be a loss for most Chinese netizens because it wouldn’t directly affect their internet lives. If they aren’t inconvenienced in a practical manner, how can we expect a meaningful expansion of GFW-consciousness or use of GFW-circumventing tools?

Are we really hoping former Google.cn and then Google.com Chinese users are going to be freedom fighters? That they’ll become internet freedom and anti-censorship activists, handing out information on proxies and VPNs to the masses, enlightening them all?

For web searches, Baidu is the easy alternative. The one stickiness point will be Google productivity tools like Google Apps and, most notably, GMail. It will probably be easier to use a proxy or VPN than to accept losing one’s e-mail account, and this is definitely more so for companies and organizations. Yes, we’ll get a lot of these people but they’re likely and already plenty aware of the GFW, of proxies and VPNs. The real coup is not in these people expanding their use of proxies and VPNs or hoping they’ll help the general Chinese net population become “more conscious of the GFW and of the ways to cross it”, it is in them being inconvenienced so much that they demand the government unblock Google.com.

Yet, even then, it may only go as far as so they can use their productivity tools, not necessarily Google’s web search.

So where’s the “increased freedom in the Chinese internet” in that?

How is that situation really better than now?

Because a few more people will learn about the GFW and fewer still will bother to find out how to use proxies and VPNs? All this at the expense of broader daily practical choice and productivity for all the existing Chinese Google users and future would-be Google converts?

Some people surely see this trade-off as being worth-it, as being acceptable, as being desirable.

Me? I’m not so sure.

Why Google.cn is Evil and should leave China

That’s the title of Uln’s post.

It’s also a straw man.

This was never about whether or not Google.cn would or should leave China. It was about whether or not Google would or should leave China. I hope everyone caught onto the difference from the beginning. Everything is hinging on whether or not Google.cn is what allows Google, and also Google.com, to remain in China. We cannot approach answering this question without considering Google being blocked from China entirely if it doesn’t play ball with the Chinese government on Google.cn. If Google refuses to play ball on Google.cn, by uncensoring it or just shutting it down, we have to consider what may happen to Google.com. We should even expect the worst. In fact, that’s what we do best when it comes to Chinese government censorship, right? Why are we even entertaining that Google.com will remain unscathed and freely accessible in mainland China at all?

I’m not going to say there are only two possibilities. Life can surprise us at times. But requiring Google to censor its Google.cn search results was always, at heart, about the Chinese government’s insecurities with letting its citizens know too much information it fears will bring chaos to their order. It was not about dicking with Google just because it could. How reasonable is it to even suggest that access to an unrestricted Google.com can persist in mainland China, behind the Great Firewall, without a restricted Google.cn running cover?

Uln declares:

In fact, I maintain that Google.cn is the most evil product to ever have existed in the Chinese internet, and the World will be a better place without it.

No, I strongly disagree. I think it offered Chinese internet users valuable choice in most practical matters. Yes, I wish it could do so without manipulated search results but life is not black and white and sometimes we have to make the best of what we can control. You have to be in a game to win it.

No, I don’t think “the World” will be a better place without Google.cn. I think certain people in “the World” will rejoice for about a week and then continue on living their merry lives, using Google as they always have, and not really care one way or another that nearly 400 million internet users in China no longer have a user-friendly version of Google at their disposal. So no, “the World” will not be a better place, just temporarily more smug.

China, on the other hand, will definitely be a worse place without it and Chinese internet users will definitely be worse off for it.

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