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Google has struggled with balancing its motto (“Don’t be evil”), purpose (to provide access to information), and goal (a global presence) against the restrictions imposed by China, the largest consumer market in the world.

Government monitors in China limit Internet users’ access to information that the government considers sensitive or inappropriate. Google first accepted these privacy intrusions, then threatened to pull out of China completely in protest of the censorship of its content. In the past few years, its service has been sporadic and unpredictable for Chinese users. Its latest tactic attempts to find a better solution.

When a Google user in China searches for a term that might be political or sensitive in nature, a drop-down menu appears, warning that the use of that word might cause an Internet interruption that Google cannot control. Chinese users thus often receive similar messages to the ones that kids in U.S. public schools see when Internet content has been blocked from their view.

Chinese officials offer no comment on Internet restrictions, nor is there any official list of suspect or threatening terms. Google has developed its own list, using reviews of outcomes of the 350,000 most popular Internet searches in China. Some search terms restricted by the Chinese government include the personal names of government leaders and political dissidents, as well as any references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. In addition, the government blocks entire sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. It also uses technology to filter visits to overseas sites that might contain “sensitive” keywords. Domestically, China blocks access to sites that do not monitor usage themselves.

Google has moved its search engine offices to Hong Kong, and in mainland China, services such as Gmail are often interrupted. The result has been a loss of search revenue for the company, especially as domestic Chinese search engines improve their offerings. Google’s decision to explain the reasons for the loss of service might help mollify users—but how will it be perceived by the Chinese government?

Discussion Question

  1. In this case, is it necessary for Google to shift the locus of responsibility for the service failure, from itself to the Chinese government?
  2. What is the most ethical decision for Google to make about its presence in China?

source: Loretta Chao, “Google Tips Off Users in China,” The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2012.