free html hit counter Google Clarifies On China and News | John Battelle's Search Blog

Google Clarifies On China and News

By - September 28, 2004

google-blogFrom their blog (and the first post of any consequence, IMHO):

For last week’s launch of the Chinese-language edition of Google News, we had to decide whether sources that cannot be viewed in China should be included for Google News users inside the PRC. Naturally, we want to present as broad a range of news sources as possible. For every edition of Google News, in every language, we attempt to select news sources without regard to political viewpoint or ideology. For Internet users in China, we had to consider the fact that some sources are entirely blocked. Leaving aside the politics, that presents us with a serious user experience problem. Google News does not show news stories, but rather links to news stories. So links to stories published by blocked news sources would not work for users inside the PRC — if they clicked on a headline from a blocked source, they would get an error page. It is possible that there would be some small user value to just seeing the headlines. However, simply showing these headlines would likely result in Google News being blocked altogether in China.

We also considered the amount of information that would be omitted. In this case it is less than two percent of Chinese news sources. On balance we believe that having a service with links that work and omits a fractional number is better than having a service that is not available at all. It was a difficult tradeoff for us to make, but the one we felt ultimately serves the best interests of our users located in China. We appreciate your feedback on this issue.

“It is possible that there would be some small user value to just seeing the headlines. ” No, I disagree. It’s more than possible, it’s a fact, and it’s not small, it’s all. The value is in knowing that you’re not seeing All That’s Really Out There. I wish Google would take a stronger public stand on this, as this rather fence-sitting statement could well strain the company’s credibility in otherwise untainted areas of its endeavors, and that’s too bad.

I’m not claiming Google should have tempted fate and forced China to shut them down (thought that would have been pretty f*cking cool, I have to say). And while I am sure this clarification was quite considered, it’s not exactly what I and others counseled. On the other hand, who the hell are we to judge? It’s a good start – they copped to the real situation, which is that if they added the blocked sites’ headlines, they’d most likely lose the service altogether. In the end, that’s why they did what they did. The user experience hoo-ha, while defensible in a Letter of The Law kind of way, is political legerdemain. I respect and agree with Google’s main decision – it was hard to make, I am sure. Yet I still wish they’d be more open with us over here in the Free World – let us know that they understand the value of what they had to take away from Chinese users in order to provide them Google News. Maybe even lodge a formal, if diplomatic, protest to the Chinese government in some way. What, no other company does that? Well, sure, but no other company opens their S1 with a statement like “Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.”

With time, the company will get there. It’s not easy learning to be public, I am sure. Plus, it’s got to be hard to be the one everyone looks to for leadership. And it’s doubly hard when you set the bar for yourself at a subjective (though admirable) goal like Don’t Be Evil.


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6 thoughts on “Google Clarifies On China and News

  1. “We also considered the amount of information that would be omitted. In this case it is less than two percent of Chinese news sources.”

    Riiight. The 2% of Chinese sites total, which also happen to represent ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of the sites that are critical of the Party line.

    Disgustingly mealy-mouthed. Evil, even.

  2. Lance Housley says:

    We might also bear in mind the possibility that the Chinese authorities could turn out to be very interested in people who clicked on links to publications and websites that are considered anti-regime. While I like to know what I cannot get, I would not fancy being subject to scrutiny by goons and secret police just because I clicked on a link without first checking how acceptable it would be to the authorities.
    Do we in the “free” world really want Google to put up links that could result in people who click on them being raided by state security officers?

  3. I’m with Cory on this one. I remember a few years ago when there was an uproar over whether paid links were being labelled clearly enough. Now Google can censor 1.3 billion people without even telling anyone. How times have changed.

    Now that they’ve admitted the China situation, let’s do the same thing for Korea’s National Security Law. So far I haven’t seen any results from, eg, kcna.co.jp on news.google.co.kr. Granted that may not be a very credible news source, but there should at least be some disclosure if NSL-based censorship is occurring.

    A blanket policy of documenting censorship in any country (for instance anti-Nazi censorship in Germany) would satisfy a lot of the critics.

  4. Mark Eichin says:

    Even better, how about a page per country, listing sites filtered from that country. Doesn’t have to be visible in that country. On the other hand, it seems more like something a third party should be doing (sort of like the way Harvard tests what china firewalls:

    http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/filtering/china/test/

    but, like that, having it done by google themselves would be a lot more reliable…)

  5. Lance Housley says:

    Kendall, you’re absolutely right about the evils of censorship, whatever form it takes, and wherever it happens. I certainly do not think that being evasive about paid links is anywhere near as serious as covert censorship, and that rather underlines your point, doesn’t it?
    But all that does not in any way address the issue of people getting into trouble with the authorities by clicking “unaccepatble” links. If we cannot make the assumption that people will understand the difference between “featured links” and “sponsored links” on the one hand, and organic listings on the other, then we cannot blithely assume that surfers in China would be aware of the political acceptability of each link. The whole point of the fuss about paid listings was that search engines should make it obvious what one was about to click on. So what do you suggest? Should Google include ALL sources in its results and label some of them “You could get a visit from the State Police if you click on this”? Google has always separated out its paid listings (and been commended for it) so how about putting up a separate column of results (parallel to the ordinary listings and the adverts) and heading it “Click on these at your peril”? No! It just would not work – for one thing, it would get Google banned in China straight away.
    One possibility is that suggested by Mark. Good one! It would make it possible to see what was deemed unacceptable by the state, while reducing the risk that people could get into trouble by inadvertently clicking on the “wrong” link.
    Or else, how about including “unacceptable” results in in the standard results list, but with no live hyperlink? It would at least mean that surfers had to think a bit harder about such results.

  6. A.H. says:

    I get so tired of this China bashing. Our government censors all sorts of things, and Google (US Version) ALSO censors their results, based on stupid IP law here.

    As an American in China, this sort of wordview, AmericaIsTheBestism, is getting on my nerves.

    The US Government Censors.
    Google US censors.

    So does China. So why does China take all the heat?