The China Syndrome Google as Big Brother - The Google Guys

The Google Guys: Inside the Brilliant Minds of Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Chapter 7 The China Syndrome Google as Big Brother

It is unbecoming for young men to utter maxims.


In February 2006, Larry Brilliant went to Google headquarters to talk to Larry and Sergey about a job, heading the company’s philanthropic arm, Dr. Brilliant spent a good part of the day in a room with Larry and Sergey, and talked very little about

“We just talked about life and where they want to go,” says Dr. Brilliant. “And they were amazing. I had never met anyone like them before. I hadn’t worked for anybody in about forty years and was not interested in the idea of working for a big company. But with Larry and Sergey I changed my mind.”

What impressed him about Larry and Sergey was their over-the-top idealism and extreme desire to do important things for the world. When he arrived at Google to talk with them for the first time, the pair had just decided to set up operations in China, which meant conforming to China’s strict censorship rules. Thus Google had become a censor, and it grated on Larry and Sergey’s conscience. It became the topic of their conversation.

“We talked about whether Google should be in China or not,” Brilliant says. “Every question came back to, what’s the morally right thing to do?”

The topic was a sensitive one for Google. “I don’t think there’s any big company in the U.S. that isn’t constantly looking at its relationship with China,” says Brilliant. “It’s a huge business partner, and it’s an unusual business partner. It has a series of pressures that we’re not used to. We don’t understand them very well. But whatever the issue was, with Larry and Sergey, it would come down to, what’s the morally right thing to do?”

That’s one thing that has never changed about Larry and Sergey. “To this day,” says Brilliant, “we’ve been through a lot of crazy things, and never once has there been an issue where they failed to make the correct moral decision. They think about the moral issue first. Everything else is secondary—including whether Google will do well by it, or if it’s good for business. I had never seen a big company in which the two people who controlled it had such an amazingly strong moral base. It feels strange to say that to somebody writing a book, because it sounds like puffery, but it’s absolutely true. It’s why I came to Google.”

Yes, it sounds like spin, and the public is right to be wary of such claims. We’re used to such spin control from big corporations such as oil companies spouting about the great things they do for the environment without ever spilling a drop of oil. But everyone who has had close contact with Google or its founders comes away asserting it’s true. One former executive, with no reason to promote the company anymore, asserts, “Everyone in the company really does believe in it.”

Define Evil

Increasingly, though, people accuse Google of “evil” deeds. The first question should be, what does Google mean by evil?

Sergey is the primary arbiter of what it means not to be evil. He has described it as a dedication to not taking advantage of customers as well as trying to do good things for the world. But it didn’t start as a promise never to do anything that others might think is wrong, such as chopping down old-growth redwood trees to make a lot of money. It started as an internal mandate for how to run a company and do well by employees.

It first came up at Google when a few executives were trying to make a decision about a group of employees who did not seem to be working out. One of the executives turned to the others and said, “Let’s just do this, but don’t be evil about it.” At another meeting a few days later, someone said the same thing. Eventually the rule was written down and institutionalized. Says Google economist Hal Varian, “It became something of a principle, not something laid down from above. It came about organically. It was about internal functioning. Later, when Larry and Sergey wrote the founders’ letter to shareholders [for the IPO] they incorporated it into the letter.”

Now Google is stuck with it. Everything the company does, big or small, is judged on whether the act is considered ethical. And, in fact, Larry and Sergey themselves have extended the definition to include business practices. On the corporate Web site, under the heading “Ten things Google has found to be true,” the principle is number six on the list: “You can make money without doing evil.” The part about making money is important. In the explanation of their truism, they did not write about treating employees well, but about the company’s advertising policy: No intrusive ads; no pretending ads are search results; providing only useful and relevant ads. They promised objectivity and honesty, not fake search results from paid advertisers, a business practice employed by all other search engines when Google was started.

Some may interpret that view as one that says, “We’re moral, and you’re not.” But Craig Silverstein, who has been with Google from its founding, says it’s more subtle than that. “Larry and Sergey do not believe corporations are intrinsically evil,” he says. “They believe, and Google’s corporate philosophy is that, being a corporation, it’s still possible to be an ethical company. You can be much more successful that way.”

To simply say that Google has indeed been more successful that way understates the definition of success. Google’s moral compass has done it well in an age of hyper-competition. But with the wide publicity of the principle that became described as simply “Don’t be evil,” Google found that it had almost impossible expectations to live up to. Says Andrew Anker, the former Wired Digital executive, “It was clear to me that they would push the wrong buttons. The issue is, don’t pretend that you aren’t evil.” Anker believes that the sheer success of Google made it suspect. “Nobody can have a seventy-five percent market share and still be liked. You’re going to piss people off, and those things will snowball. People want cuddly Sergey and Larry dolls. The problems Google is having is that the more warm and cuddly people are, the more disappointed you are when they let you down.”

And they do let people down.

Liberal Censors

For one thing, Google—and all major online services—are voluntary censors. Larry and Sergey came to the reluctant view, against their instincts, that censorship sometimes serves their users’ self-interests. To some extent, they convinced themselves of that concept. But they did so slowly and thoughtfully, weighing many facts before coming to this conclusion. “Larry and Sergey—all of us, in fact—have a culturally liberal view,” says Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

“We all have to be in a room together. Larry says if it’s something that’s going to end up in the newspaper, we have to understand it.” The sessions are not simply meetings of like minds. “Between the three of us, on any particular issue, we’ll disagree on the details,” says Schmidt. “We go around and around on the issue.”

When the discussion goes around, it ends up in Larry’s and Sergey’s laps. A few years ago, when asked by a reporter from Wired magazine what defines evil, Schmidt jokingly said, “Whatever Sergey says it is.” More recently, he told me, “The rule is ‘it depends.’ We don’t actually have a one-paragraph rule. Our process is to rely on people with good judgment.”

As computer scientists, they take great pride in relying on the smart people they have hired, as long as they dig up the facts to justify their position. Schmidt says Google’s dedication to the facts is stronger than that at almost any other company. “An awful lot of businesses are run based on intuition, experience, all those things which we don’t value very much. We value the analytical, ‘prove it’ approach. I’ll make a broad criticism: a lot of executives look nice, they’re smart, they’re well-spoken, they give nice speeches, they use all the right marketing words, but they’re not fundamentally insightful because they didn’t start from an analytical premise.”

Larry and Sergey get their experts to collect all the facts about these issues, then debate them in meetings and set the general policies. The executives responsible for the details then make the decisions on the particular issues, but with the approval of the founders, especially when they are controversial ones. While they don’t like censorship and try to avoid it wherever possible, they have come to accept the difficult fact that it’s impossible to do business in the world without it.

A couple of years ago, management refused to block the search engine from pointing people to an anti-Semitic site called JewWatch. Bloggers angrily decried that decision as essentially condoning evil. Sergey publicly defended the company’s position as an anti-censorship stance. And, of course, all the publicity increased traffic to the site.

But sometimes Sergey feels the company has no choice but to remove material. Several years ago, for example, the Church of Scientology made a copyright claim against an anti-Scientology site that had excerpted text from the Church’s writings. Sergey saw it as a free speech issue but had to back down because the anti-Scientology site did, removing the material rather than fighting .

When Google does remove search results, company policy requires that a notice be put on the site stating that information was removed. Google also publicizes what items were taken down by sending the information to an outside organization called Chilling Effects. Google forwards the complaints it gets, and Chilling Effects lists them on its Web site. Google often includes a notice on its search results page that there was a complaint and provides a link to Google is the only search engine that does this.

“The Decider”

Nicole Wong, Google’s deputy general counsel, is the point person digging up the facts on censorship and privacy issues. Wong is a short, smart bundle of energy; self-confident, enthusiastic, and enormously good at what she does. Wong, whom her colleagues have nicknamed “the Decider,” has considerable freedom to research and propose solutions to difficult issues such as censorship, having earned the trust of the founders. But she makes it clear that the standards she uses are set by Larry and Sergey—particularly Sergey—who attend most of the meetings where these issues are discussed. It’s Wong’s job to convince Larry and Sergey that her answers are the right ones. “The approach that our founders and Eric have believed in—and which I think is the right approach—is that when it comes to restrictions on speech, we should do so narrowly, in consideration of a wide range of factors.”

She notes that in the early years of the Internet, when Larry and Sergey developed their attitudes based on pure idealism, the main constituency was the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia, all countries with largely similar principles of freedom of speech. Google is now operating search engines in seventy languages. Censorship is not just a Chinese syndrome. China’s censorship is just the most visible.

Wong clarifies the point. “We’re now hitting a new generation of countries with both cultures and governments that are not on the same page in terms of freedom of speech,” she says. “We’ve seen large-scale [censorship] efforts in Turkey, in Brazil, in Korea, in India. That’s been a challenge for all of us [including all the other search engines]. How do we operate in the world and do it responsibly? China is one of the longest-debated focal points, but I really believe we must keep our eye on the ball in every other country that has similar instincts—which is to shut it off, to block the site, to take down that URL.”

The German government, for example, demands that Google and any other Internet site operating in that country censor sites that publish or distribute Nazi material. Google blocks such sites from its German .de domain, but not at or other country domains. And the United States cuts short its free speech allowance when it comes to writings that promote violence, child pornography, and other illegal activity. Nobody complains about the fact that Google keeps its search engines from leading people in Germany or the United States to banned sites. The slope toward the abyss of censorship is almost impossible to avoid.

Censorship is a judgment call, involving not only government laws but cultural attitudes as well. Wong points out one dilemma that came up in 2007. Someone posted a video on YouTube that was highly critical of the king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej. The videos, which did not come from Thailand itself, were “unquestionably disrespectful,” says Wong, showing the king with a monkey face, for example, or posed in compromising positions. But were they illegal? In the United States, where political and other public figures are regularly parodied mercilessly, they would be allowed under the laws of free speech. Thailand is a different story.

Wong traveled to Thailand to research the issue personally. She discovered, first of all, that Thailand does have a law against insulting the king. The king, who is eighty-four years old and was crowned in 1950, is deeply loved as an important, stable, and respected figure in a country that has been characterized by many coups in the last two decades. “The reverence for the king across Thailand is absolutely uniform,” she says. “That law is a prime example of crystallizing the view of the people.” When she arrived in Thailand, for example, an American living there told her that, to the Thai people, the king “is a cross between George Washington, Jesus Christ, and Elvis Presley.”

Wong had arrived on a Monday, which happens to be the day of the week the king was born. Every Monday, the Thai people honor his royal color, yellow. When Wong walked out into the street, virtually everyone was wearing a yellow shirt with the king’s image on it. “What that told me is, totally aside from what the law may be, the criticism of the king—which in the United States would be cast as political speech—had deep cultural significance in Thailand.”

In the end she decided it was right to block the offending videos in Thailand. “I don’t dismiss the validity of having different norms about what’s okay for me to say to you in Thailand, or what’s okay for me to say to you elsewhere. It’s just different. And it’s upon us to figure out how we offer a global platform that gets that right.”

Wong firmly believes it was the right thing to do. “In offering our services, it’s not just that all the information ought to be out there. It’s also, are we respecting what people want to hear, what they’re accepting of hearing? Or are we posting what essentially amounts to obscenity for them? I had to get to the country to figure it out, but I totally understand it at this point.”

But the point where she draws the line is when officials try to expand censorship across national boundaries. Turkish officials crossed it recently when they asked Google for a worldwide ban on YouTube videos that violate Turkish laws by insulting the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. At first Google responded to Turkish complaints by blocking the offensive videos only in Turkey. But in June 2008, Turkish officials demanded that Google block the videos worldwide, to protect the rights and sensitivities of Turks living abroad. Google refused, and Turkish censors blocked all of YouTube from being seen in their country.

A Difficult Decision

To the top management at Google, these issues illustrate the complexities and subtleties of the issue of censorship. And they’re still learning. “I consider us to still be in our infancy,” says Wong, “like we’re going to take a corner too fast and hit our head on the wall. But this is an exciting time for us all to figure out how to get it right.”

The decision to go to China was the most difficult one they made, despite the conclusions of Wong, which they ultimately accepted. Censorship should be anathema to a company like Google, and China is perhaps the worst offender, targeting dissidents, reporters, and political foes as well as banning sensitive topics such as Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong, and Tibet. In one famous case, Chinese officials demanded that Yahoo turn over information about one of its customers, a reporter who had written articles critical of the government. Legally, Yahoo had no choice and turned over the information. He was then convicted and received a ten-year prison sentence.

The debate over what to do about China started in earnest in 2004 and continues to this day. “For well over a year the executives—Larr y and Sergey and Eric—debated what’s the right thing to do. It was a very passionate discussion every time it came up,” says Wong, who participated in the debates with Larry and Sergey. To them, it was a decision with implications that would “affect the future of the Internet itself.”

In 2006, they finally launched a Chinese-based search engine,, based and operated in China. The criticism throughout the Internet and the mainstream press was fast and furious.

Some of the criticism was off base. Many insisted that Google should just stick with its offshore Chinese search engine and try to get things past the censors as much as possible, rather than giving in to China’s demands. Google still runs its offshore site, but since Google doesn’t censor the results of that site, the Chinese government often blocks access to it using a filter known facetiously as the Great Firewall of China.

The founders finally decided that wasn’t good enough. “A huge part of the discussion we had [internally] was whether we would have a chance to make a meaningful contribution [in China] by standing outside,” says Wong. “With the blockage of the [Google .com] service in China, it was not just that you’re outside yelling, it’s that you’re outside yelling and nobody can hear you.”

Did Larry and Sergey succumb to the sheer desire to succeed in the fastest-growing and largest market in the world? It had to be part of the pressure they faced. China claims the world’s largest population of Internet users—more than 253 million at the end of June 2008. Yahoo and Microsoft had already set up operations in China, and a Chinese search engine called Baidu was gaining traffic.

The market share of Google’s offshore site started to falter in China as Baidu, which obeys the censorship laws, grew. In an August 2005 report, the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) reported that Google’s market share in China had dropped from its leading position to second place behind Baidu. Google’s market share came in at 38 percent while Baidu’s hit 44 percent.

At first, Google’s response was to buy about a 3 percent stake in Baidu. But in January 2006 it announced it was opening its own operations in China, which meant agreeing to self-censor forbidden topics. (Google sold its Baidu shares several months after that announcement.) It turned out to be the decision that has done the most harm to Google’s reputation. Across the Internet, bloggers denounced Google as having officially joined the ranks of “evil” corporations.

Once Google started operating on Chinese soil, it had to conform to Chinese laws, including censoring its own site, or face the consequences. Just after Google launched its Chinese operations, CEO Schmidt told me, “We have to obey Chinese law, or our employees there will be arrested and tortured. I have a problem with that.”

A big part of the rationale behind taking the cold plunge into China was the idea that operating on Chinese soil would benefit Chinese users. In order to set up an office in China, Google’s executives had to agree to block certain sites and topics from its search results, based on a list provided by the Chinese government. But this also meant that the Chinese Firewall would no longer block access to Google’s site, giving Google more control over its site and ensuring that it would run more efficiently.

Google’s executives also had the hope, perhaps naively, that more competition would help open up the restrictive practices of that fast-developing country as it moved into taking a capitalist and more international stance. Just the presence of the Internet, even under restrictions, floods every country with more information than it has ever seen before.

Says Wong: “Anyone who believes in freedom of speech has to think this is the most exciting time we’ve ever been in. This is the biggest democratization of speech we’ve ever seen, which means that you or I or my five-year-old has essentially the same platform as ABC News, or the New York Times or BusinessWeek. And that’s huge, and it’s fraught with lots of problems. It’s somewhat on the paradigm of that classic diplomatic question: isolate or engage? At the end of the day we decided to engage, because we believed that being there would have more possibilities of moving things in the right direction than refusing to be there.”

And perhaps Google’s presence will make a difference. Unlike Google, Baidu does insert paid ads into the search results, which reportedly account for about 80 percent of the company’s revenue. Press reports have recently alleged that those paid inserts include ads from illegal medical companies. And when the scandal over tainted milk erupted in 2008, Baidu became mired in another controversy, accused of accepting payments from the milk industry in return for censoring news about the scandal.

It is interesting, though, that moving into China has not helped Google’s market share, which has continued to lose ground to Baidu. By late 2007, Baidu had grabbed a 62 percent share of Chinese searches, compared to Google’s 24 percent.

But Was It a Good Decision?

The decision to move to China continues to nag at Sergey’s conscience. At Google’s 2006 annual meeting, shareholders representing human rights organizations began an annual protest, demanding that management reverse or reconsider their approach to China. Every year, the proposal is rejected. Larry and Sergey still own a third of the company’s stock, with half the voting rights on board-level decisions.

At first, Sergey was defensive over China. At the 2006 shareholder meeting, the person raising the China issue argued that many people, he included, would switch to using other search engines in protest. Knowing that every other search engine already practiced what Google had just succumbed to, Sergey responded testily. “What search company would you switch to?” he shot back. The rights activist stammered over the unexpected question, then murmured that he personally used Yahoo. That was a mistake. Sergey was ready with his answer. “Oh, you mean the company that just turned over information about one of its users to the Chinese government and got him arrested?”

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2007, Larry and Sergey acknowledged that the negative publicity over the move had harmed the company’s reputation. “On a business level, that decision to censor . . . was a net negative,” Sergey admitted. Larry has displayed a more pragmatic response, believing that they made the right decision, even if outsiders criticize it. “I don’t think we as a company should be making decisions based on too much perception,” he said at the same meeting.

And at the most recent annual meeting in 2008, Sergey abstained from voting against the latest proposals to do something about Chinese censorship, proposals that would setup new committees to examine Google’s censorship policies in China. He felt there was some merit to the ideas. But neither did he vote in favor of the proposals.

Sergey also clings to the belief that Google can make a difference in China by pushing the envelope of how to censor. When Google started its site, for example, it took the extra step of letting searchers know that information they were looking for had been removed in accordance with government laws. “Even if we can’t deliver that information, at least a user knows it’s gone, that there was information that was blocked,” says Wong. “That’s a form of transparency Chinese users had never seen before. We’re never going to be happy about removing information, but if we can make people aware of it, it’s still moving the ball forward.”

Since Google started that practice and got away with it, the other Chinese search engines have started posting similar notices, and it has become standard practice.

Wong also argues that foreign companies doing business in China, including Google, can’t help but make Western attitudes rub off on the country’s people. “We are employing some of the smartest computer scientists in China. They are working on hard problems and [are being exposed to] some of our culture and our mission as they do so. That’s something that we will bring to China that I feel really good about.”

And with effort, sometimes questionable items do get past the government censors. The lists provided by the Chinese censors are not always consistent, and leave room for interpretation. A study from the University of Toronto in 2008 found that not all search engines censor equally. When researchers tested a series of controversial subjects on the major search engines in China, they found that Baidu had filtered out 26.4 percent of the sites, Yahoo censored 20.8 percent, while MSN and Google were virtually tied, at 15.7 and 15.2 percent, respectively. An earlier study by Reporters Without Borders found similar results. While Google fared the best, the researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen’s Lab found that all of the search engines could be doing better. The lab found that 313 sites were censored by at least one of the search engines, but only 76 were censored by all four. Perhaps this leaves room for creating an independent committee at Google to examine more carefully what it censors.

Still, Google’s management insists they offer tougher competition to which competitors will have to respond. Again, this does not apply just to China. “We have the same process for all of our other domains, even in the U.S.,” says Wong. “Most of the removals in the U.S. are related to copyright issues. In those cases, we also put up a notice” that the item has been removed.

Like it or not, Google, with its powerful presence on the Internet, is becoming the world’s censor. As a private company, it has the right to censor from its sites whatever it deems objectionable. (Sergey refuses to accept ads for cigarettes or alcoholic beverages.) It’s unquestionably a heady responsibility for any company or pair of individuals, and nobody can be faulted for worrying over how far Google will take it.