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Sergey's education

January 26, 2006

"I gradually grew comfortable, and I think we're doing the right thing." So says Google wunderkind Sergey Brin, to a Fortune reporter, in defending the company's decision to censor search results in China. That's the way it always works. You start out with high-flown ideals, and then you "gradually grow comfortable" with breaking them, and finally you're able to convince yourself that you're "doing the right thing." On the flight home from Davos, Brin might want to read some Thomas Hardy novels.

But beyond the Google cofounder's education in capitalist ethical situationalism ("Don't Be Evil, Relatively Speaking"), this story brings into clear relief the broader situational fault lines of the internet. Whatever your feelings about filtering content, the fact is that search engines are now routinely choosing to filter out different types of content in different situations, usually in response to local laws or local social norms. The Wild West days are over. The internet is being subsumed into the real world.

Brin's belief that the internet might exist in a separate uncompromised space, where all the world's information is always available, unfiltered, to everyone, is not just a personal ideal; it's one of the internet's foundational ideals. And it's a good ideal: it puts a stake in the ground. But it's clear now that the future of the internet is going to be determined by how wisely we compromise that ideal, not by how fiercely we hold onto it.


Nick, this statement is improper:

"Brin admits that while Google has chosen to filter political speech in China, it has chosen not to filter child pornography in the United States."

He said no such thing. What he said was roughly that anything a government tells Google to remove - child pornography or Falun Gong, they remove it. WHEN THE GOVERNMENT TELLS THEM. Not before.

Given the inflammatory nature of that sentence, I really think you should retract it.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at January 26, 2006 11:32 AM


Nowadays, I think that, kind's of things, it's a matter of time. After, September 11, the world is not be the same!!
Whatever, it's very important too, to understand what is impact that economic's china, have around the world and particularly in the companies like Google. I'm completely sure that Google, is not the unique company have to implement that kind of censure.

In that way, China, will be more talked about this subject!


Posted by: Orlando Agostinho at January 26, 2006 12:09 PM

Seth, Here's the relevant excerpt from the Fortune piece:

Brin: And we also by the way have to do similar things in the U.S. and Germany [as we're doing in China]. We also have to block certain material based on law. The U.S., child pornography, for example, and also DMCA

Fortune: You actually actively block child pornography?

Brin: No, but if we got a specific government request. If a third party makes a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) claim that another party is violating copyright, and that party is not able to counter, then we are obligated to block that.

Google did not have to censor Chinese search results. It made a business decision - a choice - to do so because it wanted to be able to put servers behind the Chinese firewall and thus compete more effectively in the Chinese market. It also recently made a choice to exclude certain content from its Google Video service. If Google chooses what it filters, then it chooses what it does not filter as well. Those choices may be right or they may be wrong - or they may be a little of both - but make no mistake: They're choices.

Posted by: Nick at January 26, 2006 12:44 PM

Your phrasing implies that Google refuses to remove child pornography from its index. Such an implication is deeply unfair.

Do you disagree with the following:

When Google is notified by the goverment (presumably) that a site contains child pornography, they remove it from their index.

Again, you state: "Brin admits that while Google has chosen to filter political speech in China, it has chosen not to filter child pornography in the United States."

I can only repeat that such a rendering is very wrong given the nature of the charge.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at January 26, 2006 12:56 PM

"Brin admits that while Google has chosen to filter political speech in China, it has chosen not to filter child pornography in the United States."

The statement might be at little unfair, but there is definetly some truth in there. Brin and al. chose not to challenge the Chinese gov., which is a little disappointing coming from a company who claims to have strong (and widely advertised) principles.

Posted by: Xavier Casanova at January 26, 2006 01:16 PM

I just had a look at a few newspapers published in my country (Belgium) in order to check the way the Google story was being reported. It boils down pretty much to: "Google has betrayed its ideals and is just following the money. Google helps dictatorial regimes like China in practicing censorship." Entirely true or not, this is going to be extremely damaging to their "do no evil" image.

Posted by: Alain Rogister at January 26, 2006 01:59 PM

Seth, After further reflection, I took out the sentence that offended you. The point I was trying to make was simply that search engines choose which content to filter, and ultimately those choices are going to be made in response to both laws and social norms - not just governmental fiat but public pressure as well. But in rereading the Fortune interview, I realized that there's ambiguity there that I hadn't grasped before. So, in fairness, I'm taking out the sentence. Thanks for pushing me. Nick

Posted by: Nick at January 26, 2006 08:57 PM

Good for you, Nick. It's laudable to be willing to make clarifications.

Again, what Brin obviously means is that Google does not go actively looking for child pornography (understandably!), but removes it when notified by the proper authorities. There is an entire notification system in place (see, for example, the UK "Internet Watch Foundation"). And though I have no first-hand knowledge, it's inconceivable that Google isn't a part of the notify-and-takedown list.

I've written about the "public pressure". It's a complex issue - the problem is that activist groups then have an incentive to lobby, and it's an endless tar pit. The basic stance (not always followed, granted, but I think sensible) is that illegal material will be removed (which varies locally), but to go further invites madness.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at January 26, 2006 10:07 PM

Maybe you now this already. But there's an interesting piece on web neutrality at Legal Affairs by Jack Goldsmith and Timothy Wu:

"This conception of the Internet began to crumble in April 2000, when two French antiracism organizations sued Yahoo!, the American Internet portal, in France. The groups charged Yahoo! with hosting Nazi auction sites that were accessible in France and that violated French laws against trafficking in Nazi goods."


Posted by: Philipp Bohn at January 27, 2006 03:54 AM

Ok, so we are savaging Google for not taking the Chinese consumers side and siding with the "cruel" government. But do we not in the US put all kinds of regulations before we let foreign businesses here? Example - we have arcane rules on foreign airlines owning stakes in Delta, American etc even when they are desperate for more capital. The average US consumer would like to see more compeitition and healthier carriers. The politicans say no. Business around the world is about compromises. We may call busineses evil. But usually it is the politicans who play the games. The good news is they eventually come around to the consumer point of view. How long do you think China will effectively control access to information flow with an increasingly affluent consumer and more globally travelled population?

Posted by: vinnie mirchandani at January 28, 2006 12:41 PM

Vinnie, I think there's a pretty big difference between political repression and trade regulation.

Posted by: Nick at January 28, 2006 10:45 PM

I do not think I made my point well. I am not defending China or its human rights record. I am saying politicians around the world demand concessions of foreign corporations before they let them operate in their countries. Those demands are not in their consumer/citizens best interests - and many times violate rights of US employees. For example, US corporations who send employees to Saudi Arabia have to make their employees accept religious and other restrictions the ACLU would go ape over. These are sovereign countries and we have to accept their restrictions. If we are going to savage Google, lets savage every US MNC because they are making some compromise or another in a lot of countries around the world.

The good news is in most countries the average citizen is becoming far more savvy about reality because if not by internet, ease of global travel is allowing them to know their politicans are playing games about.

Posted by: vinnie mirchandani at January 29, 2006 09:37 AM

I would just like to say Google is not the only search engine...and the internet is not the only means of information interchange. People will always find a way.

Posted by: Maria Bell at January 30, 2006 08:43 AM

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