I was on the Google campus when the AP’s Google News China story broke (it’s been followed by the Merc and others). I’ve been hanging back and not commenting as it percolated earlier in the week (ie this Slashdot thread), waiting for something which advanced the story. David Krane, who’s been helping me with my interviews on the campus, mentioned the story and I asked where things stood.
David explained that Google made the decision to omit a small number of Chinese government banned sites (about eight) because to include them would create a damaged user interface experience. Google China users would see results and links, but be unable to click through to the actual pages, because China in fact filters those sites – they can’t be seen behind the Great Firewall of China.
This line of reasoning is echoed in the Merc’s coverage:
Google acknowledged that headlines from government-banned Web sites were intentionally excluded from Google News because they are inaccessible within China’s borders. The company said that providing links to inaccessible Web sites would degrade the “search experience” of its news site.
“Google has decided that in order to create the best possible search experience for our mainland China users we will not include sites whose content is not accessible,” the company said in a statement, “as their inclusion does not provide a good experience for our News users who are looking for information.”
I think this is half an answer, to be honest. It’s always best to know that you are not being shown something, even if you don’t know what that might be. Clearly the best approach, in a perfect world, would be to show links to that which is censored, even if users can’t click through. That way, at least they’d have an inkling of what they’re missing (Google already has a practice like this in place through the Chilling Effects website for stuff like the Scientology dustup and DMCA requests). At the very least, Google could acknowledge to Chinese users that there are results which can’t be seen due to government restrictions (sort of like what they do with duplicates and such – “In order to show you the most relevant results….”).
However, to do either would clearly irk the Chinese authorities, and Google, like every other company that wishes to do business in China, has to play by those authorities’ rules (the Slashdot thread was, in fact, quite balanced on this point.)
I think the company might consider avoiding the “we’re trying to make the best search interface” excuse, which has some intellectual defensibility, but feels rather cold, and rather admit that they find it frustrating to have to keep this information from Chinese users and would prefer to at least inform them that the information they are seeing is not complete. Then admit that they have to play by Chinese rules, which honestly are the real culprit here. In the process, Google could and should point out that on balance, they do far more good than harm by making all the rest of Google News, and Google writ large, available to China’s burgeoning internet population.
If you want to track this story, I’d wager CDN would have the latest.
Update: Worth reading: this piece by a editor at a paper that has been blocked by China, and therefore Google News.