Jesse Jarnow

the great firewall of china

So, Google has gone into China, and seem to be complying with the government’s censorship orders. A lot of people are calling Google out on this, saying it directly goes against their “don’t be evil” motto. But it really depends on one’s definition of evil, not to mention the value one places on Google’s import. Either way, Google has crossed a line into some murky currents.

At the Consumer Electronics Show, Google co-founder Larry Page showed a world map that highlighted where search queries were coming from. “If you look at a picture of earth from space at night,” he said, “you’ll see that anywhere there’s electric light, there’s internet, and anywhere there’s internet, people are using Google.” That’s pretty staggering. Simply, Chinese citizens will have better access to this grid. There’s no way to argue that this is bad, nor is the mass self-consciousness created by what John Battelle calls Google’s database of intentions. (This is more or less what co-founder Sergey Brin argued this week.)

If Google is pure, then the fact that they are now operating in China is not what matters. What matters is the way they function within the boundaries laid out for them. Will there be a Chinese equivalent of the famed Google Zeitgeist? If so, and teched-out dissidents ram “Tibet” — one of the censored terms — up the charts with a bullet, what happens? Does it get blocked out from the list like the Sex Pistols were? What happens if the Chinese government requests search information, like the Department of Justice is currently? (If the DoJ gets away with it, wouldn’t that set a bad standard for China? Not that the United States government has ever taken a hypocritical stance before…)

Google is a business, but — in many ways — they operate like a mysterious institution, like the State or the Church or money or anything else that people collectively agree to believe in because it is necessary. If one accepts that the internet exists, Google naturally follows (and, if it doesn’t, you’re deluding yourself). They were going to go into China eventually. This is the beginning of the next phase, and substantially more important in a (literally) real world way than Google Video and the fact that people can download day-old NBA games and old Star Trek episodes.

Here we go.