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Why Is Google Returning to China?

The company's apparent retreat on censorship show that it is not immune to the pressures that have long shaped the tech industry.

Li Xin/AFP/Getty

This spring, Google quietly removed its longtime unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil,” from its employee code of conduct. The motto was largely an exercise in branding rather than an ideological statement—over its three decades in existence the company has dealt with evil-ish issues ranging from tax avoidance to search engine manipulation. Still, the shift was significant, suggesting the company might be becoming more hard-nosed as it faces pressure to expand.

Google’s attitude toward censorship is a case in point. In 2010, Google effectively pulled out of China over censorship concerns, following a fight with Communist Party authorities over requests to filter its search results and the hacking of Chinese activists’ Gmail accounts. But now, Google is edging toward China again. Last week, The Intercept reported that a Google team is working on search apps that would comply with the country’s strict censorship regulations. That work is part of a slow shift toward China that began in 2016 when CEO Sindhar Pichai told investors, “I care about servicing users globally in every corner. Google is for everyone. We want to be in China serving Chinese users.”

The decision to re-engage with China says much about both Google and the state of Big Tech. In 2010, the Chinese market could be sacrificed to principle. But in 2018, Facebook is doing business with China (with all of the censorship that implies) and there is heightened competition from Chinese rivals like Baidu. Google may simply have decided that, when it comes to China, it is now or never.

Google’s relationship with the Chinese government, which explicitly favors homegrown companies like Baidu and has no intention of dismantling its “Great Firewall” censorship program, has always been complicated. Back in 2006, The New York Times’s Clive Thompson described the unsavory options facing the company:

If Google remained aloof and continued to run its Chinese site from foreign soil, it would face slowdowns from the firewall and the threat of more arbitrary blockades—and eventually, the loss of market share to Baidu and other Chinese search engines. If it opened up a Chinese office and moved its servers onto Chinese territory, it would no longer have to fight to get past the firewall, and its service would speed up. But then Google would be subject to China’s self-censorship laws.

Neither of these were particularly good options, especially for a company that prides itself on being liberal and open-minded. In 2006, Google ultimately launched a censored version of its search engine, with its leaders arguing that the overall result—i.e. Chinese citizens gaining access to a larger scope of information—was worth a little bit of censorship. There were difficulties from the outset, including congressional hearings in which the company was compared to the Nazi Party and forced to defend its decision to block search results for persecuted groups and its partnership with the Chinese Communist Party. But Google continued to operate in China until 2010, when government operatives used phishing attacks to target the Gmail accounts of dissidents, human rights activists, and rivals.

The biggest proponent of the decision to pull out of China was co-founder Sergey Brin. Born to a Jewish family in the Soviet Union, Brin has been outspoken about censorship and authoritarianism, before and after the company’s foray in China. Months after Google pulled out, he told Der Spiegel, “Having come from a totalitarian country, the Soviet Union, and having seen the hardships that my family endured—both while there and trying to leave—I certainly am particularly sensitive to the stifling of individual liberties.” But three years ago, Brin took on a new role as president of Google’s parent company Alphabet and his “influence at Google has been minimal,” according to Quartz. Pinchai, his replacement at Google, has not made free speech a signature issue, while he has made re-engaging with China a priority.

As reported by The Intercept, the thaw between the two sides has “accelerated” in 2018. The plan is to ultimately “launch a censored version of its search engine in China that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest.” This would allow the company to operate with minimal state intervention. According to documents viewed by The Intercept, the search engine will “automatically block” websites censored by China’s Great Firewall and will “blacklist sensitive queries.”

There are a number of risks in returning to China. The biggest is that, while Google may have hoped in 2010 that it would be able to return to a friendlier and less repressive China, the reverse is true: Over the last eight years, online censorship has increased. So Google risks becoming a political football once again. With Democrats and Republicans circling around Big Tech, building a censored search engine for a repressive regime with a strained relationship with the United States (and President Trump in particular) makes Google vulnerable to any number of political headaches.

Furthermore, Google’s policy toward censorship, along with its larger political attitudes, have been a recruiting boon. Some employees have criticized its decision to collaborate with Chinese authorities.

But growth is still the top priority for Big Tech companies. Earlier this month, Facebook lost over $120 billion in market value in minutes after it revealed growth numbers that were lower than investors and analysts had hoped—even though they were still substantial. By locking itself out of a market that contains hundreds of millions of potential users, Google has not only set itself back, but it has ceded ground to American and Chinese competitors. Eight years ago, Facebook had 500 million users; today it has 1.3 billion (2.5 billion when you count its other applications, including WhatsApp and Instagram). Tech is significantly more global than it was eight years ago and that means, as Pinchai surely realizes, operating everywhere—even in disagreeable places.

Google has liked to pretend that it’s not as rapacious as its competitors—that it’s a friendly giant. That it has the best interests of its uses and its communities in mind when it rolls out new products or enters new markets. In 2006, Brin could look at China and tell The New York Times that his decision to enter the market “wasn’t as much a business decision as a decision about getting people information. And we decided in the end that we should make this compromise.” In 2018, Google can’t make the same kind of claim. It is simply a big company that will do whatever it takes to get a little bigger.