Ever since its founding 20 years ago in a Silicon Valley garage, Google has proudly and often ostentatiously held itself up as the architect of a new model for corporate virtue.
“Google is not a conventional company,” the search engine’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, told investors as part of the initial public offering in 2004. Google, they said, would always put long-term values over short-term financial gain. “Making the world a better place” would be a primary business goal, and Google’s ethical compass could be summed up in a simple and celebrated motto: “Don’t be evil.”
In the years since, Google’s once-revolutionary sensibility has been adopted and watered down by much of the rest of the tech industry, becoming the stuff of parody and skepticism. Google itself has played down its former zealousness; Alphabet, its parent company, recently dropped some references to “don’t be evil” from its code of conduct.
Still, if you work at Google or have bought into its missionary brand, you can point to moments when its ethos did rise to something more than marketing puffery. The most obvious example: In 2010, after four years of attempting to operate a censored search engine in China under a regime there that was becoming increasingly hostile to online freedoms, Google did something that a more conventional company would not have done. It said that it had had enough, and pulled its search engine out of the massive market.
Now, Google appears to be changing its mind. Under a plan called Dragonfly, the company has been testing a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market. In a meeting with employees last week, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, said that “we are not close to launching” a search engine in China, but he defended the company’s exploration of the market.
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The defenses are not unsound. Under any rational business sense, it would be insane to expect one of the world’s largest internet companies to stay out of the world’s largest internet market, especially when many of Google’s American rivals happily operate under that government’s intrusive rules. China is Apple‘s third-largest market, and Microsoft and Amazon both offer a host of services there.
But wasn’t standing apart supposed to be the hallmark of Google’s Googliness? Leaving China was the kind of unorthodox decision the search company once reveled in — a move that sacrificed financial prosperity for the moral high ground, that showed employees and customers that Google, with its planet-swallowing mission to organize all of life’s information, was motivated by something deeper than financial ambition.
Activists for online freedoms worry that Google’s return would have dangerous real-world consequences, perhaps accelerating a great new wave of online restrictions in China and elsewhere. But the most lasting impact might be in how we would have to reimagine what kind of company Google was and what it stood for.
It is hard not to see how going back to China would be anything other than a terrific comedown — the most telling act of a company that, day by day, has come to resemble the utterly conventional corporation it once vowed never to become.
“If Google wants to be judged like any other global company, that’s fine,” said Ben Wizner, director of the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “They should just say so — that their principal obligation is to their shareholders and their bottom line. But that has not been the rhetoric coming out of Google, and I think it’s fair to judge them by the standards they have set for themselves.”
In a statement, a Google spokesman said that “we don’t comment on speculation about future plans.” But the company’s leaders have disputed the idea that returning to China would be a moral reversal. At last week’s staff meeting, Mr. Pichai suggested that returning to China would be in accord with the vision the company had in 2006, when it first agreed to censor results to accommodate Beijing.
At the time, the company said in a blog post that “filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission” but added, “Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population, however, does so far more severely.”
Mr. Pichai underlined this argument — that providing some access to the outside world is better than none — by citing his experience growing up in India.
“My dad worked for a U.K. company, and they went through whether they should be in India or should they pull out,” he told Google’s staff, according to a transcript obtained by The New York Times. “And they stayed, and that made a difference for my dad. And in all likelihood, I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for that.”
There are other factors behind Google’s potential reversal. The internet has changed a great deal since 2010, and the company’s executives have increasingly come to see their decision to leave China as rash, naïve and ultimately counterproductive.
Google’s decision was set in motion by a Chinese hack into its services that was meant to uncover dissidents and spies. The attack shocked and angered Google’s founders. In interviews, Mr. Brin, who was born in the Soviet Union, compared the Chinese government to the “totalitarian forces” that had shaped his youth. He and other executives suggested that taking a stand in China might set a kind of red line for repressive regimes elsewhere.
“I think that in the long term, they are going to have to open,” Mr. Brin told The Times.
Since then, China’s rules have only hardened, while a host of other governments have stepped up efforts to police speech online.
Now even many democratic governments are adopting stringent curbs on online speech. For instance, in Europe, a “right to be forgotten” rule has forced Google and other search engines to remove results that are judged to invade people’s privacy, and more rules governing hate speech and propaganda are in the works. Meanwhile, Edward Snowden’s leaks showed that the American and British governments have also hacked large internet companies, including Google.
“This argument makes me very sad: The world is becoming more like China, so therefore we might as well be in China,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, an internet freedom advocate at New America, a think tank.
She said that advocates of free speech and human rights had long found Google to be an ally in their efforts, and that a reversal in China would be regarded as a major defeat.
“I wrote a book where I warned that China is Exhibit A for how authoritarian governments adapt to the internet and then begin to change the internet,” Ms. MacKinnon said. “And if companies like Google are now throwing in the towel and saying, ‘Well, that’s where the internet is going’ and ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ — well, that’s deeply troubling.”
If Google does go back to China, it will likely have to agree to an even more restrictive censorship regime than what it tolerated previously. Mr. Pichai has vowed to be transparent about how such a plan might roll out. But advocates said transparency alone would not mitigate their worries about Google’s shift.
“If Google is trying to promote openness and free societies, then transparency is going to be an insufficient way to make this better,” said Mr. Wizner of the A.C.L.U. “The transparency would be aimed at the rest of the world. Google wouldn’t be telling Chinese people, ‘Here’s what you can’t see.'”
Sure, it’s early, and Google’s plans are not clear. There remains the possibility that Google will think of some completely nontraditional way to satisfy China’s censors without losing its soul.
But that seems unlikely. The more plausible conclusion is the more obvious one: Google took on China, and Google lost.
“Make no mistake,” said Michael Posner, a professor of ethics and finance at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “This will be a huge victory for the Chinese government and anyone else who wants to severely restrict the internet.”