Google's Choice: Friend of the Internet, Friend of Tyrants, or Both?

Last Updated Apr 22, 2010 1:16 PM EDT

Google (GOOG) has been working the PR to promote its anti-censorship positioning. First, there was the loud trumpeting about leaving China -- then hoping it didn't have to leave China, and then finally leaving China, but redirecting search traffic to its servers in Hong Kong. Just recently, Google posted its site about requests the company receives from governments for either information or to remove content. Transparency? Full disclosure? Maybe. But I can't help but wonder how sincere Google really is.

The answer is complicated, because even with its exit from China, if you look at the Reporters Without Borders Enemies of the Internet list -- a list of countries the group finds particularly bad about online censorship -- you'll find that Google has domains in fully half. Furthermore, Google's government requests pages leave at least as many questions open as answered.

I've had mixed and critical reactions to Google's stance on China since mid-January. However, it wasn't until last month that I asked whether the company was addressing censorship in countries other than China. Ironically enough, last month someone identifying herself as a Google PR person called to pressure me over my negative reactions to the company's actions in China, saying, "We wanted to talk to you before we went to your editor." I raised the issue of censorship in other countries and she said that I'd have to provide a list of countries to Google so she could check if the company had servers in them.

To save Google the trouble, I did some research. I checked each of the countries on the Reporters Without Borders list and then searched -- in Google -- on the combination of each country name and the word "google." It turned out that Google has domains in at least six of the 12 countries. I've bolded the ones where Google has domains:

  • Burma
  • China
  • North Korea
  • Cuba
  • Egypt
  • Iran
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Syria
  • Tunisia
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Vietnam
I called again to learn whether Google had servers in these countries, but I was told: "Google invests heavily in technical facilities and has dozens of facilities around the world with many computers. However, we don't disclose exact numbers or locations of facilities or computers." Having only goes so far.

I spoke with Lucie Morillon, head of new media desk at Reporters Without Borders. She said China was an unusual situation. It was the only country where Google filtered results for a country. As she said, ""When you tell a firm that you're guilty or responsible for what is imposed on you and the censorship you have to face in the country, the legal argument is in their favor because the company has to obey the local laws."

However, even if Google is not censoring results in the other countries, their governments ultimately censor. Google can't stop that from happening, but it seemed odd that China was the only country Google singled out for criticism. From the outside, the lack of response elsewhere looks like a tacit go-along-to-get-along tactic. In addition, according to Morillon, there have been cases in which Google has removed material from its sites at the request of governments. Specifically she mentioned that Google removed some satire videos about the king of Thailand.

Now Google has a government requests page that tracks government requests for content removal. Unfortunately, the information that seems robust at first glance actually says little. Look at the data removal requests from Brazil:

It's impossible to tell the circumstances of what Google removed and why. A read through the government requests FAQ shows how little you can glean. A request may involve multiple pieces of data or content. Also, as Google says, the data doesn't cover all categories of data removal:

  • Google at times removes content that "violates local law" without government demand. It doesn't point out that violating local law could be as broad as criticizing a government.
  • The data is for July 1, 2009 through December 31, 2009 only.
  • Data doesn't indicate whether Google "whether Google complied with or challenged any request for user information."
  • None of the data counts data blockages by governments, though the company says that it is working on a separate tool to show that information.
  • Google indicates what percentage of requests to remove material they complied with, but doesn't say what percentage of requests for data they fulfilled.
This is why Google's opposition to censorship is complicated. Some of the people at the company, like co-founder Sergey Brin, have strong feelings about the topic. Yet, given how Google cooperated with China, others in the company clearly tolerate censorship more.

That is the company's business, but things get sticky when firms claim that lofty principle is the driving factor in a business decisionmaking. Once you take that stance, it's essential to follow through consistently. Otherwise, the principled position becomes nothing more than a PR campaign, and it can actually damage a firm's credibility. I'm not saying Google is doing this. But I am saying that at this point, it's pretty hard to tell.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.