‘Do No Evil’ Google has, rightly, returned to China. However, Google was also right when it withdrew because its reputation and survival were at stake.
The hacking of Google email accounts and the stealing of its worldwide log-in authentication code for every Google service, presumably by the Chinese military, threatened the brand’s core being. That’s because Google’s shareholder value depends on a combination of intellectual property and public trust, based on the exploitation of a worldwide web infrastructure it does not own or control. What’s more, Google can only optimise its money-making if its users divvy up more of their privacy in exchange for its world of “Free”.
So the pull-out from China was never about money. It was never about Google’s failure to gain market share in China. Neither was it about defending the right to the free flow of information or the freedom of speech. Google withdrew its co-operation with the Chinese government’s censorship of the internet in retaliation at the hacking of its users’ emails and the theft of the company’s property.
If Google’s users cannot rely on the privacy and security of the firm’s platforms, applications and services, then Google does not have a sustainable business model.
Google’s return to China – like its entry in to the market – comes with the implicit acceptance, however reluctantly conceded, that the government there has the right to restrict access to internet content. This time around, Google simply relocated its servers securely in Hong Kong. It has allowed the Great Firewall of China to censor access to them. It is a pragmatic compromise. As the BBC points out:
“The battle between Google and the Chinese government appears to have ended in a score-draw.”
Of course, Google’s reputation remains a victim of its split personality. On the one hand, the company was built on the premise of an ambiguous “Do No Evil” slogan and on the utopian notion of enabling unhindered free flow of data and information across the web. On the other, Google has always been a profit-driven, share-price sensitive animal, which pushes it to be pragmatic and not to be overly ideological in practice.
The latest development in China highlights how Google is growing up fast. It reveals a company which is learning how to keep hold of its integrity and USPs while remaining sensitive to the real-world forces and issues, many of which it is not in a position to influence. Nevertheless, Google has been scoring some own goals recently. One example was Google Buzz, which failed partly because its clumsy “auto-following contacts” in Gmail upset users. Another was the wifi privacy intrusions by Google’s mapping vehicles.
The PR challenge now for Google is to convince a sceptical world that it can be trusted long term with our personal and social networking details, viewing habits, interests and data. It’s my view that unless Google handles privacy issues well it will be replaced by the next big competitor that comes along. However, the news from China suggests that a grown up Google might survive into old age.