Well, I’m stuck in Atlanta, waiting for a delayed flight. My wife and I hit the bookstore and what does she find but the paperback edition of The Search, the one with the new chapter. I’m mildly surprised, as it’s not supposed to be out till Monday, but there it was. I’ve been meaning to post some teasers from the new chapter. Thanks to Delta’s utter hopelessness, here is the first of a number of installations I’ll post over the next few weeks.
Barely a year has passed since I finished final edits on The Search, which was originally published in September of 2005. I sent the final manuscript to my editor in April of 2005 (yep, it takes nearly six months to get a book out once the manuscript is finished; books, like democracies, are deliberate and plodding beasts). Since then, an awful lot has stayed constant. Google remains the undisputed king of search, Wall Street, and the Internet, and a host of Google’s competitors continue to wring their hands over what do to about it.
But an awful lot has changed, and the pace is quickening. Put mildly, it’s been a busy year in the world that search impacts. Which is to say, pretty much the entire world, from the executive suites at Amazon and Microsoft to the governments of France, Germany, China and the United States.
Google Dances With Dragons
So let’s start in China, with a nod toward the US Department of Justice. If you’ve read this far, that means you read Chapter 8, a chapter starring, among others, Sergey Brin and his company’s tortured decision process as it relates to entering the Chinese market. Well, regardless of the sleepless nights, in the past year Google has entered China with gusto. It not only opened offices and poached staff from Microsoft (prompting an unsuccessful lawsuit from Redmond), it also launched a Chinese native site (Google.cn) and agreed to the rules of the Chinese government (in short, the site is censored).
Now, as I pointed out earlier, this is not a new development for US Internet companies – Yahoo, Microsoft, and many other information services had already submitted their products to Chinese censorship. But when Google made the move, well, that got some attention.
On January 23 Google announced the launch of Google.cn. In a prepared statement defending the move, Andrew McLaughlin, senior policy counsel for Google, wrote: “Google.cn will comply with local Chinese laws and regulations…In deciding how best to approach the Chinese–or any–market, we must balance our commitments to satisfy the interest of users, expand access to information, and respond to local conditions.”
In other words, Sergey Brin and Larry Page had argued themselves into entering the world’s largest developing market, just as it seemed they would when I spoke to Brin a year before in Davos. And while Yahoo and Microsoft can go into China without arousing the passions of the US government, Google apparently can not.
Two days after Google announced its service, US Congressmen Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey who chairs a House subcommittee on human rights, called immediately for a hearing. His goal: To explore the “operating procedures” of Internet companies who operate in China. Clearly Smith smelled blood: because of its towering profits and seemingly contradictory “Do No Evil” motto, Google was an easy target.
Smith was also spurred into action by disclosures in the press that on multiple occasions Yahoo had cooperated with Chinese government requests for information on suspected dissidents. As a result, at least two Chinese citizens, including a researcher for the New York Times, ended up incarcerated. And Microsoft piled further fuel on the fire when – at the request of the Chinese government – it summarily deleted the online journal a prominent Chinese dissident had kept on Microsoft’s blogging service.
On February 16, 2006, representatives from Yahoo, Cisco, Google, and Microsoft found themselves on the hot seat, but the warmest bum belonged to Eliot Schrage, newly installed VP of Corporate Affairs for Google. Congressman Smith called Schrage and Google out on the company’s informal “Don’t Be Evil” motto, at one point stating that Google had “become evil’s accomplice.” Representative Jim Leach of Iowa went so far as to call Google “a functionary of the Chinese Government.”
Coverage of the hearing dominated the news, and stories around the world showed pictures of Tibetan monks and angry Chinese students protesting Google and imploring the company to “not be evil.” The decision to go into China was clearly damaging Google’s once pristine consumer brand.
Schrage and others admitted that China represented a conundrum, and during the hearings and afterwards there was vague talk of a “coalition” effort – an industry pact of sorts that might actually voice an opinion about China’s attempts to censor its businesses. But such ideas seemed doomed to remain just that – ideas. Were Google, Yahoo, or others to actually voice a strong opinion about Chinese policies, well, Beijing would not look kindly on such moves. Not to mention Wall Street, of course – there’s profit to be made in China, if everyone just keeps their heads down.
While no one has declared the idea of a pact dead, in practical terms it’s really not sensible to expect that such an effort will ever take root. After all, this is a group of companies who can’t even agree to interconnect their instant messenger networks. To think they might change US policy without the support of, well, the US government, is pretty silly. It seems to me that when it comes to China, only one force can provide leadership: The US government itself.
A note: It’s odd how much a story can change in a few months. I finished this chapter in May, and just four months later there is serious talk about how Google has lost its mojo in China – not one year after it entered the market.
The next installation will focus on the DOJ and Google’s software distribution plans.