Google executives spent precious hours in 2009 defending Google from the perceptions of its being evil, whether it was against claims that it freezes out publishers from earning revenues or builds so many new Web services that the long tail can't possibly compete.
Just two weeks into 2010, Google may have dispelled some of those theories that the company has turned or is turning evil by taking a stand against China.
Briefly, Google threatened to exit the Chinese search market after it determined hackers in the country had penetrated its corporate infrastructure and spied on Gmail accounts. Google said it would cease censoring Google.cn and is considering exiting the market there.
The founders apparently agonized over the decision. At least two pieces in the Wall Street Journal -- from Rebecca MacKinnon and Andrew Peaple -- praised the move as a watershed for free speech abroad, humanitarian and, of course, decidedly not evil. This piece from William Pesek in BusinessWeek sums up the situation.
Also read this impassioned post from Jeff Jarvis and you can almost hear the triumph in his voice:
"I can well be accused of being a Google fanboy; I wrote the book. But I have been consistent in my criticism of Google's actions in China. And so now I have [no] choice but to become even more of a fanboy. I applaud Google for finally standing up to the Chinese dictatorship and for free speech."
Google, deliver us from evil. World without end. Amen.
All this, and Google hasn't actually shuttered its operations yet (though reports say employees are on early holiday). BroadPoint AmTech's Ben Schachter said Google's exit is a foregone conclusion because, as he put it: "One does not make such a public announcement if it only intends to review its options."
For Google, exiting China would seem an anathema. It takes a lot of moxie to walk away from 360 million Web users eager to search and, by default, see and maybe click on your ads.
But think of it in this light. While this would hinder Google's designs for world search domination (this is a brief, glib way of saying Google wants to reach as many Internet users as possible with its search services and show them ads along the way), it would also protect the company's greater interests.
Google does not take kindly to attacks on its cloud computing environment. Attacks on Google's cloud are actually attacks on its consumers, because Google hosts its users' data on thousands of servers in data centers all over the world.
Nicholas Carr cut through the syrupy assertions about Google doing the right thing when he pointed out that Google isn't just standing up for free speech, it's protecting its business. Carr wrote:
"Google's overriding business goal is to encourage us to devote more of our time and entrust more of our personal information to the Internet, particularly to the online computing cloud that is displacing the PC hard drive as the center of personal computing ... If our trust in the Web is undermined in any way, we'll retreat from the network and seek out different ways to communicate, compute, and otherwise store and process data. The consequences for Google's business would be devastating."
I think this is a properly sober way of viewing Google's stance on China. But in a way, Google's position symbolizes the way the company has operated for the last 11 years.
With the China situation, Google pleases free speech advocates and journalism experts like Jarvis. But more importantly for Google, it also protects its users and customers and therefore its business.
Is that protecting self-interest with a healthy dose of humanitarianism or protecting human rights with a dose of self-preservation? Both, but Google has always been about both. Google serves search and Web services and collects data on users. It's a very symbiotic relationship. Protect the people, and Google protects itself.
What is evil about that? To folks in the United States who regard China with wary hearts and minds, nothing. But there is another side to the coin; the 31 percent (ComScore stat) of Google China users won't think Google is being so nice. Bloomberg noted:
"The search engine's exit would be a "sad result for Chinese internet users," the Economic Observer said. Having Google in the nation helps China maintain its image as an "open and free" country, according to the Beijing-based newspaper."
Also from the piece:
"The U.S. search engine can't "abandon" China if it wants to be a socially responsible company, the Shanghai Morning Post said. "In a world where bad money drives out good money, the good money shouldn't give up on itself," according to an editorial published in the Shanghai-based newspaper."
Sadly, for most people in the United States, citizens in China who complain about Google shuttering its Web portal may sound like frogs whining that the pond is too wet.
That is, the sentiment is a rather harsh, "Aren't they used to it by now?" That doesn't make it right, and it may do nothing to prevent a Google exodus from the country from seeming evil.
If Google leaves China, it may get kudos in the United States, which stands for democracy and free speech, but it's going to get the evil designation from Chinese users who depended on Google for an alternative.
Either way, Google won't please everyone, and that's one of the albatrosses of being a larger, hungry company.