Chinese Professor Argues Google Should Launch A Censored Search Engine In China

from the leaves-out-the-problems dept

There’s been quite a lot of reasonable uproar over the leaked plans for Google to re-enter the Chinese market with a censored, locked down search engine. There’s a lot of history there, but giving in to the authoritarian government’s desire to block access to all sorts of content would seem to go very much against Google’s stated focus on helping provide access to information around the globe. There have been numerous recent reports of Google employees protesting this decision internally, and even some employees have quit Google to put an exclamation point on just how against this idea they are. Recently an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post from a Chinese professor started making the rounds, arguing that “even a censored Google search engine would be better” for people in China than its current main search engine, Baidu.

The argument from Bai Tongdong, a professor of philosophy at Fudan University, is pretty straightforward. More or less, it argues that Baidu is not a very good search engine. Google, even in a heavily censored fashion, is almost certainly going to be a lot better, and thus it will certainly aid in getting everyday people in China more access to information:

As a college professor, I find Baidu?s search results on scholarly matters deeply frustrating, because they don?t lead me to the webpages I wish to find. In contrast, Google?s search results are far more useful. Thanks to my part-time employment at New York University?s law school, I can use its virtual private networks (VPN) to access Google, a benefit that I consider more valuable than the extra pay.

And it is not just terrible search results, and the lack of access to useful tools such as Google Books. Baidu?s shameless commercialisation of its search engine has been the subject of controversy. For example, companies could ? and maybe still can ? bid for the top spots in Baidu?s search results, and users are not warned that these results are the outcome of commercial bidding and not sorted by relevance, as is the practice with Google.

In one case that sparked a public outcry, a young man used Baidu to search for treatments and clinics for the rare form of the cancer he suffered from. The man?s family spent over 200,000 yuan (US$29,000) on an experimental treatment at one of the for-profit hospitals that topped his Baidu search, but the treatment was unsuccessful and he died. The search results could have caused him to miss potentially life-saving treatment.

Undoubtedly this is true. It would certainly probably improve the search engine results and options for Chinese residents. But that’s not really the point of why Google left China nearly a decade ago, nor the reason why people are concerned about its plans for a censored re-entry. I don’t think anyone denies that it probably would be useful for Chinese residents and citizens. The question is at what cost does this come? Giving into an authoritarian government, hiding important and often useful information — including information critical or mocking of the Chinese government — is something that many people think is fundamentally wrong. Appeasing authoritarian governments never leads to good outcomes.

The article suggests that since it would improve the lives of the average Chinese individual, and because Google could always pull out again if it felt pressured to go to far in the moderation of the search engine, that this shouldn’t be a huge concern. But that ignores the idea that having the government censor the search engine results in the first place should already be seen as a bridge too far.

Finally, he argues against the idea that Google staying out of China leads to China changing its policies, and thus, Google should re-enter the market:

…the simple fact is that, although it has been years since Google exited China, nothing much has changed or is expected to change for better in those areas. While the situation can?t worsen, there is a chance that Google might prompt an improvement.

In a world in which the only choices available are between the purely good and the purely evil, that is, in a world that has never existed and will never exist, ?do no evil? would be a good guiding principle. In the world we live in though, the practical motto should be ?do the lesser evil?. For, after all, a morally compromised Google is still better than Baidu.

That’s really throwing in the towel entirely, though. The entire argument is based on the idea that Google hoped that leaving China would prompt some change in its unhealthy censorship policies. But, if true, that would entrust to Google a lot more power than I think even the biggest Google booster thinks the company has. It didn’t pull out of China to try to force China’s hand. It pulled out of China because it believed China’s censorship and surveillance campaigns were simply wrong. That hasn’t changed, and that’s why Google shouldn’t give in here. It’s not about some big calculus about what’s better for whom. It’s about not censoring content at the behest of an authoritarian censorship-happy government.

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Companies: baidu, google

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Comments on “Chinese Professor Argues Google Should Launch A Censored Search Engine In China”

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Gary (profile) says:


Moderation is a bitch. You can’t run a blog, search engine or any sort of interactive web site without it.
The wholesale censorship practiced in China is indefensible. Finding the balance between the two will never make anyone happy but clearly the "Great Firewall" is way over the line, and this filtered Google search will be as well.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Calculus

"clearly the "Great Firewall" is way over the line, and this filtered Google search will be as well."

The best and biggest threat to ultra-authoritarian regimes is an open communications channel. China, of course, knows this (and has known this for thousands of years). The day any citizen is allowed untrammeled access to an uncensored internet will be the day after the empire has fallen.

And you can’t blame China for this heavy-handed approach either. The soviet union, in it’s last days, received at the helm a visionary humanitarian – Gorbachev – who opened the door to foreign influence. The soviet empire fell within a scant few years largely as a result of the people discovering just how green the grass and fresh the air was on the other side of the fence.

The professor in the OP has a pretty good view on it. A censored Google is better than Baidu, for almost every purpose.

And that’s as good as it gets. The chinese regime will not and can not allow anything beyond that. The Great Firewall – hell, the entire Golden Shield project – is expressly a necessity to ensure the current style of government remains in power. China will defend the censorship and internet isolationism at every cost. Because the government will rather eat 50 years of recession than allow for that one thing which will topple the existing power structure.
And, not least, would allow chinese citizens to read about their new, effectively emperor-for-life’s resemblance to Winnie the Pooh.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Calculus

Why can’t you run a search engine (this being a type of interactive website) without moderation? It only needs to return relevant results. If I’m searching for troll comments, anti-government texts, or something offensive, I expect the engine to find them.

It’s easy to run a blog without moderation if it doesn’t accept user comments and the set of posters is limited.

Anonymous Coward says:

I would like to see the protocol for censoring web content. For example,
1) are there different modes of operation like censor, accuse, frame, embarass
2) how does it target; website, political opinion, people
3) Is there a list of good/bad words/phrases
4) Are there lists upon which one is put as a result of their search criteria?
5) How does your “social score” get impacted

Anonymous Coward says:

How does that work?

So… they are asking an international company to be complicit in and comply with Chinese censorship because…
Their home brew search engine is too limited because of Chinese censorship(among other things).

“Bai Tongdong, a professor of philosophy”

Looks like the cultural revolution was perfectly effective.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: How does that work?

Their home brew search engine is too limited because of Chinese censorship(among other things).

Baidu has three strikes against it. Obviously it is handicapped by Chinese censorship.
But it also has zero competition – therefore it doesn’t have any incentive to compete.
And as the article mentions, Baidu doesn’t follow the basic advertisement guidelines that Google does about promotions, sponsorship, etc. Corruption in China seems to be a pretty big problem.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: How does that work?

<i>"Corruption in China seems to be a pretty big problem."</i>

No greater than that which you can find in the west, really. Just that what changes hands usually isn’t direct moneymakers but favors, positions, favorable reviews, handshake deals, eyes turned the other way, enhanced due diligence on one deal, cursory examination on another deal, red tape thicker or thinner depending on the requester…etc.

I don’t see much of a difference bwteeen Washington DC and Beijing other than that in China some of the nepotistic backscratching can afford to be more heavy-handed because the local journalists often back away from shady deals which have too close government connections for comfort.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: How does that work?

Devil, the Pro-Democracy groups in China would strongly disagree with you about the corruption problem. However I was contrasting Baidu against Google – and as the quoted professor stated, the Baidu results are heavily slanted for businesses and against consumers. Google at least has good policies in place for transparency on advertising placement.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 How does that work?

"Devil, the Pro-Democracy groups in China would strongly disagree with you about the corruption problem."

Another kettle of fish. "corruption" implies that a system has been abused. Chinas system works exactly as it was designed and has operated the same way for thousands of years.

"corruption" in China is only categorized as such when government power decides to retroactively revoke some political or fiscal entity license to operate. Until that time no corruption exists and no one will ever look.

This is not an issue of crimes and bribery, it’s just a very old chinese market control tool.

Chinese pro-democracy groups aren’t going to get anywhere as long as what they’re looking for is a corruption "problem" since most of that is just a "feature" of the current political system. And that system is not going away unless or until they manage to dismantle that political structure which in China has survived three millenia unscathed with the sole hiccup that for a few decades they didn’t need an emperor to figurehead it.

"However I was contrasting Baidu against Google – and as the quoted professor stated, the Baidu results are heavily slanted for businesses and against consumers."

Again, i concur. Baidu also works exactly as designed. I’m fairly sure even if Google bends over backwards they still won’t have a license to operate in China unless they agree to cripple their engine all the way back down to the Baidu standard.

China has worked very hard to ensure as much information and entertainment as possible, required and wanted by a chinese citizen should come from inside China. Google is in that regard a US merchantman arriving with a cargo of opium, in china’s eyes. A wedge of western business inserting itself into the chinese inner market.

Simon (profile) says:

Pay offs

This is a non trivial question. There are ethical questions, such as “is promoting effective search with censorship in the interests of the human race, in the short, medium and long term?”.

There are moral questions, such as “Will effective search help promote the downfall of the Chinese oligarchy even though the obvious query routes are monitored and censored and may lead to users encountering death or slightly less trivial oppression?”

And then there are always the commercial interests based searches, which can be as crude as:

“If the buggers win, then what does that mean for us?”

“What will the public think of us if we do this?”

“Can we hide / PR Justify doing this whilst improving our political position with PRC and making a shed load of shekels?”

Each organisation will no doubt make up it’s own stance on this – but as organisations get larger, there tends to be a trend that moves from “do no evil”, to …

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"It’s not really that different than the "right to be forgotten" that is being forced down everyone’s throat."

Too true. The "right to be forgotten" is, essentially, censorship. On request from private interests perhaps, but still state-sponsored.

And also a rampant deviation from a thousand-year norm of how privacy is juggled versus publicly available information.

stderric (profile) says:

In the world we live in though, the practical motto should be “do the lesser evil”. For, after all, a morally compromised Google is still better than Baidu.

A utilitarian pragmatist philosophy professor who recommends that multinational corporations capitulate to the demands of totalitarian governments because "meh better’n nuthin’"… I would kill to be able to sit in on one of this guy’s NYU law courses.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Google had already "capitulated". He is making a strictly capitalist argument. Same argument govs and corps make for trade anywhere and everywhere with repressive regimes. Nothing new here.

Or if you want to look at it as a humanitarian argument, his people get something that is far better than the awful search they have. Again, Google had already decided to go in, it’s just that they got busted before the fait accompli stage here.

I would agree it is a bad idea for Google to go this route, but the level of mockery, in several posts so far, for this professor essentially pleading for help is beyond pathetic. You can claim or argue that your moral good is more important than his/theirs (and it probably is, even if likely doomed to failure in the longer run), but it doesn’t make Bai Tongdong some sort of moron, and doesn’t directly or necessarily reflect on his teaching of law.

stderric (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I wasn’t intending to make Bai Tongdong out to be a moron — far from it. Nemo’s comment below does a much better job stating what I was clumsily hinting at, although I was going after utilitarianism in more general way.

As a side note, pragmatism and utilitarianism (and formalism) seem to be well suited to the practice of law, and Prof Bai’s lectures probably are very interesting — I just don’t think the same principles should be applied to government and politics in the same way or to the same degree. After all, look at how many lawyers the US elects to Congress, and how well that keeps working out for us 😉

Nemo (profile) says:

Interesting that a Prof of Philosophy would miss a key point

If a tame Google replaced Baidu, it would work better, but also work better at concealing the really meaningful stuff.

Further, it would benefit China’s gov’t, because it would allow access to science and technology that would lead to better technology and economy, bolstering their own image while remaining ruthlessly totalitarian.

A semi-functional Google would be worse for the Chinese people than what they have now, because it would legitimize a despotic gov’t behind a wall of “improvements” that came at a cost they didn’t even know they were paying.

Then again, a Prof whose main goal was to score some points with the ruling Party might very well say something quite similar to this.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

It's a matter of economics

Building a “special” search engine for China would increase market share in the short run – which is what the high frequency traders want to see.

Not building one put pressure on the Chinese government in that their population *wants* the same “see everything” search engine “everyone else has”. Massive market share increase, but over a long forecast as the government slowly capitulates. Not what Wall Street wants to see for the high frequency trades, but making it an excellent long-term investment.

Forget all the “humanitarian” nonsense. It sounds good to the naive, but it’s a fast way to run a company into the ground. Companies will *always* take moralistic positions, but they’re still driven by simple economics.

Just like politicians.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: It's a matter of economics

No, it’s simply a comment on how politicians and companies wax poetic about the Great Good! they’re doing for Humanity! in the media, while never mentioning it at Board or Shareholder meetings as they display the graphs of how much more money they have coming in.

Businesses exist to make money, not to “help” people. If they help people while making money, it’s a bonus that Marketing can use to make more money.

Same for most “charities”. Look at the top brass – first thing most do is give themselves hefty salaries. And then an “expense account” that pays all their bills, leaving the salary as pure profit.

So Google has two possible profit-driven motives here. Create a parsed-down “special” engine for use in China, making the speed dealers in the market happy, or simply wait for outside forces to pressure China into accepting the current engine, making the long-term investors happy.

What’s “good” for the Chinese population or “humanity” in general doesn’t come into the picture except as spin to make Google look better to the non-trading masses.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: It's a matter of economics

I used to think the same, but if you use this strategy for planning your investments you will find it isn’t accurate.

When shareholders invest in companies they are not always purely profit motivated. The companies that are pulling out of the Saudi agreements, for example are not doing so because they think it will make their shareholders more money.

Companies do not always act in the way that will make their shareholders the most money, nor do their shareholders always want them to.

crade (profile) says:

A Couple other things:

China wants and uses leverage over foreign companies to push it’s post-truth censorship agenda globally. Google entering China is a leap towards that goal. How easy is it going to be for google to say no once they are dependent on the Chinese market?

Don’t forget about the inevitable debilitating lawsuits and fines whenever something doesn’t go China’s way.

Anonymous Coward says:

"The practical motto should be 'do the lesser evil.'"

An attitude of "pick the lesser evil" is the same one that has people voting for the "Kick all of the puppies" party, so that they get elected over the "Kill all of the puppies" party. No one really likes the policies of either party, but both parties agree that a third party will never get elected, so I guess you’re just going to have to vote for the puppy-kickers.

It’s in the best interest of those that want you to choose between evils to present you a false dichotomy, and say that "Only evil choices are available, so you might as well choose the lesser evil."


If you vote for the "Cuddle puppies" party, that’s not a vote for the "Kill puppies" party, no matter how much the "Kick puppies" party wants to tell you otherwise. Indeed, it’s the only way that puppies will ever stop getting kicked or killed.

"Do no evil" is the right approach; it’s a shame that Google seems to be straying from it.

(I leave the association of "Which party wants to kick puppies and which one wants to kill them?" to the reader.)

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: "The practical motto should be 'do the lesser evil.'"

Agreed in principle. However, in a two horse race like the ones we usually have, all it does is take votes away from either the kick or kill parties, depending on which one the majority of (gerrymandered) voters has decided is the lesser of two evils. Time to allow more entrants into the race.

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