Brin Suggests Google Might Reverse Chinese Censorship In The Short Term; Meanwhile, China Ramps Up Blocks

"Brin says Google compromised principles" from the Associated Press covers Google cofounder Sergey Brin telling reporters yesterday that it's possible Google might reverse its policy of censoring on behalf of the Chinese government. That's the real news from his talk -- a possible reversal, perhaps soon -- not the admission of compromise which Google's made before. The news comes on the heels of China apparently ramping up blocks on the uncensored site.

Back in January, Brin already said the move wasn't "to the 100 percent that we ideally would like." That same month, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that Google had created an "evil scale" to determine just how much a compromise of the company's "Don't Be Evil" mantra the China move would be. In February, Google communications chief Elliot Schrage explained to a US Congressional committee how in 2002, Google refused to compromise its principles:

We faced a choice at that point: hold fast to our commitment to free speech (and risk a long-term cut-off from our Chinese users), or compromise our principles by entering the Chinese market directly and subjecting ourselves to Chinese laws and regulations. We stood by our principles, which turned out to be a good choice, as access to was largely restored within about two weeks.

But then he also explained that compromise in 2006 was deemed necessary:

Our hope is that our mix of measures, though far from our ideal, would accomplish more for Chinese citizens? access to information than the alternative. We don?t pretend that this is the single ?right? answer to the dilemma faced by information companies in China, but rather a reasonable approach that seems likely to bring our users greater access to more information than any other search engine in China. And by serving our users better, we hope it will be good for our business, too, over the long run.

So fast forward to yesterday and Brin's statement:

"We felt that perhaps we could compromise our principles but provide ultimately more information for the Chinese and be a more effective service and perhaps make more of a difference," Brin said.

Frankly, it's really nothing they haven't said before, albeit more directly to have "compromise" and "principles" coming up so directly and so close together. Far more interesting was this statement:

"Perhaps now the principled approach makes more sense," Brin said.

Change directions? That itself isn't necessarily news. Google's already said before they might reverse course. Going back to Schrage's statement from February:

Looking ahead, we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives I?ve outlined above, we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.

That statement sounds pretty long-term -- watch and see over time. Brin's statement sounds more immediate, as if suddenly things have changed that might make Google rethink its approach in the near term. What could those things be?

For one, the China issue isn't going away. Google continues to take flak for it, both outside China by those opposed to the move and even those inside China by those upset with the disclosure route they've followed.

More recently, just this week, journalists in the UK started organizing to boycott Yahoo over its actions in China. Google, which has done far less egregious things than Yahoo is accused of, could still come under fire for a similar move.

Also this week, reports have started coming in that is being more heavily blocked from China. China 'blocks' main Google site from the BBC (and see also Reuters) has more on this. has never worked perfectly within China. That, after all, is the reason why Google caved to create an approved Chinese edition. But has remained held out by the company as a way for those in China to still get an uncensored look at search results (at least uncensored according to Chinese laws; US laws still get a far more limited amount of material removed).

If is now being more aggressively blocked -- not just occasionally for particular sensitive queries but in a heavy-handed fashion -- Google loses another relief valve for those upset with its actions.

It's also important to note that one of the ways Google decides what to censor is to look at the differences between and Google China from within China, as the New York Times explained in an excellent story back in April. If is being blocked more heavily, then it's harder for Google to maintain its censored version.

Then again, perhaps a reversal isn't really likely to happen soon. Later in his talk with reporters, Brin said:

"It's perfectly reasonable to do something different, to say, 'Look, we're going to stand by the principle against censorship and we won't actually operate there.' That's an alternate path," Brin said. "It's not where we chose to go right now, but I can sort of see how people came to different conclusions about doing the right thing."

The "not where we chose to go right now" sort of defused the idea that dropping censorship might be a short term thing.

It's also interesting that only two months ago, Google CEO Eric Schmidt talked about the Chinese action as "absolutely the right move." I didn't agree with that, and now we've got one of the cofounders clarifying it wasn't absolutely the right choice but rather simply one of at least two directions Google decided to go.

If you're interested in more about these issues and past developments, be sure to check out the Legal: Censorship category we maintain for Search Engine Watch members.

Want to comment or discuss? Visit our Search Engine Watch Forums thread, Brin says Google compromised principles.

Postscript: more 'Google Speak' at ZDNet from Donna Bogatin notes that only last week, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said he doesn't "see a need to change what we have done." So a split among the Google leadership? Or a recent change in China making them all rethink things?

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Danny Sullivan was the founder and editor of Search Engine Watch from June 1997 until November 2006.

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