Who\’s the 800-lb Gorilla: Google, or the Chinese Government?

A few days ago, my friend and colleague Dave Taylor posted a thought-provoking commentary on Google’s decision to launch a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market.

See: “Google gets pragmatic and enters China

On balance, Dave thinks that this was a good business decision that ultimately will be good for both Google and the Chinese people. He wrote:

“I find it abhorrent that the Chinese want to filter the information that its citizens can access through the Internet. I also find it appalling that Chinese bloggers risk being shut down or even jailed for sharing their political or religious views. To do business in a foreign country, however, you must respect their political, cultural and social rules. That’s not something up for debate, that’s just how business works, and how life works.”

Very true.

On the one hand, I agree with Dave about business pragmatism. China is a huge market no search firm can afford to ignore. Also, I do think it’s good for Google to have a presence in China, and for for Chinese citizens to have at least some access to Google. Engagement can yield considerable benefits, however it happens. Never underestimate the power of serendipity.

But down the road, who’s the 800-lb gorilla in this room: Google, or the Chinese government? I’d bet my bananas on the Chinese government. Here’s what that might mean…

This seems pretty clear to me: Google needs the Chinese market more than the Chinese government needs Google.

Let’s look at the raw power dynamic in this situation:

  • Currently, the Chinese government almost entirely controls its population’s access to the Internet. This is unlikely to change anytime soon.
  • Any company wishing to serve the Chinese online market must play nice with the Chinese government.
  • Google has competitors – which means the Chinese government has options.

All of those factors indicate that in order to land and maintain this relationship, Google probably will have to keep the Chinese government happy. What makes the Chinese government happy right now, at the outset, may change over time.

Once Google gets hooked on the revenue linked to its access to the Chinese people, might it be willing to quietly implement further – and murkier – concessions to the Chinese government? Like maybe:

  • More restrictions on searchable content
  • Refraining from indexing, say, Chinese blogs that aren’t specifically sanctioned by the Chinese government.
  • Providing aggregate search data to the Chinese government showing, say, how many Chinese people are looking up “tibet + independence” every week.
  • Providing specific IP addresses associated with search queries for censored topics.
  • Monitoring the correspondence of Chinese Gmail users for censored terms or content, and perhaps intercepting such messages and turning them over to the Chinese government.

…Yes, I’m extrapolating.

My point is, we’re talking about the exercise of power here. That’s the core issue. While the Chinese government virtually controls online access for the massive and attractive Chinese market, it holds most of the power. Once it gets its online providers hooked on serving China as a cornerstone of their revenue stream, it can pretty much ask for whatever it wants.

That’s where this will get much, much murkier.

IMHO, of course 🙂

MORE CONTEXT: Here’s what the “fingerprints” of an 800-lb gorilla can look like on the internet, courtesy of Brad Feld.

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