Google falls at first moral hurdle

This morning’s Observer column.

In the longer term … the commercial logic that led Google to capitulate may turn out to be counterproductive. The reason is that – in contrast to companies like, say, Halliburton – Google’s ultimate fate depends on trust. Its corporate mission – to ‘organise the world’s information’ – means that it aspires to become the custodian of immense quantities of private data. Already, it holds the email archives of millions of subscribers to Google Mail, plus records of every web search they ever made. And although it is resisting the attempt of the US government to mount a fishing expedition through those data, nobody doubts that, in the end, Google will comply with the law.

But that’s different from making a strategic decision to compete in a space dominated by an evil political regime. Google could, after all, have said that if the Chinese authorities demanded self-censorship then it would not play. One only has to put it like that to imagine the incredulity of mainstream media reaction to such a proposition. Imagine standing up at a CBI conference and declaring that one is not going to do business in China until it makes serious moves towards becoming an open society! By joining the Gadarene rush into the Chinese market, Google may have gained short-term advantage. But it has also forfeited its right to our trust.

More: Just seen this post on Brad DeLong’s Blog. It compares the results from an image search for “tienanmen” on (1) and (2)

Yet more: Bill Thompson (who is less censorious of Google) sent me a link to this Geekculture cartoon!