Why Google got hammered for its China policy

There's a long and fascinating article from the New York Times describing Google's policy in China. As usual, the real story is more subtle and nuanced than what was first reported in the press. The article is great reading on several fronts – it talks about the cultural differences between the US and China, it discusses Chinese Internet usage patterns that are significantly different from other parts of the world, and it attempts to explore the thinking of the average Chinese Internet user.

The last bit rang a little false for me – the article's implication that many Chinese people welcome censorship of the Web reminds me of the articles during the Cold War that found Russians appreciated being oppressed by the Soviet government. When the government is powerful and punishes misbehavior, people quickly learn what they can and can't say. China is by no means a police state, and there's enormous diversity of opinion there, but I think it's dehumanizing to say that Chinese people somehow desire or deserve less of their rights under the UN charter than do people in other countries.

But all of that stuff aside, the most striking thing about the article to me was the description of how Google took enormous criticism in the press and in Washington for its China policy. The article describes much more egregious compromises made by Google competitors, and concludes: "Against this backdrop, the Google executives probably expected to appear comparatively responsible and ethical. But instead, as the China storm swirled around Silicon Valley in February, Google bore the brunt of it."

The article implies that timing and unrealistic expectations caused Google's problem, but I think there's another explanation: it's Google's own fault. When people misunderstand your intentions, when they blame you for things that you didn't do or didn't intend, it's a sign that you are not communicating properly. It's not their fault for misunderstanding you; it's your fault for failing to explain yourself properly. For a company, the process of explaining yourself properly is a thing called "marketing." Google's contempt for marketing was cute when the company was younger, but now it's just an embarrassing handicap. Unless Google comes to terms with that, and empowers some senior marketing people, I think it will inevitably get hammered again.


Rachel Luxemburg said...

They really don't get it. A Google employee came to talk to my Business Ethics class a month or so ago and spent 40+ minutes talking about how ethical Google was because it respected its employees and gave them great benefits. *rolls eyes*

China didn't come up until we asked her about it in the Q&A, at which point we got the standard "it's better to work with the government than to not be there at all" answer.

Perhaps I was expecting too much, but if you're invited to talk about Business Ethics and your company is being engaged in a round of criticism for doing something that quite obviously is in ethical confict with the "don't be evil" slogan they espouse, is it too much to ask that you come prepared to actually talk about the issue beyond parroting the company line?

At this point, I would respect Google more if they just came out and said, "yes, we're putting money over principal on this issue" and be done with it. Trying to insist that this is not about the cash to be made in China just makes them look even worse.