Google can't have it both ways

Linda Chavez
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Posted: Mar 15, 2006 12:05 AM

When it comes to fighting government censorship, Google, the giant Internet search engine, is on the front lines. Or is it? It all depends on which government is seeking to restrict access to material on the World Wide Web. Google has been fiercely battling the U.S. Justice Department from obtaining Google records in the government's effort to keep pornography beyond the reach of children. The company has been much more accommodating, however, when it comes to its dealings with the government of the People's Republic of China.

Google has been fighting a Justice Department subpoena for some 50,000 Web addresses and 5,000 random search requests, none of them linked to any personal information or data on Google's millions of users. The Justice Department says it needs the data in order to defend the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act in a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the 1998 law.

Other large Internet companies -- Time Warner's America Online, Microsoft Corporation's Microsoft Network and Yahoo -- have already complied with most of the government's requests. But Google has been standing on principle. At least the company would like you to think so.

"Google users trust that when they enter a search query into a Google search box, not only will they receive back the most relevant results, but that Google will keep private whatever information users communicate absent a compelling reason," the company explained in its filing in District Court. As one of the founders of the Internet company, Sergey Brin, recently explained, cooperating with the government is a "slippery slope and it's a path we shouldn't go down."

On Tuesday, a federal judge directed Google to comply with the government's request, but the company could appeal the order. Whatever happens, Google's refusal to bend to pressure from the U.S. government is in stark contrast with its behavior toward the PRC. The Chinese government isn't trying to deny access to pornographic sites, but it is very worried about letting its citizens learn more about Taiwan independence or what really happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Google has offered a Chinese language version of its site for years, but users in China frequently complained that their searches hit a brick wall when they tried to reach human rights sites or find out information the government didn't want them to see. So Google recently decided to set up a specific Chinese site, Google.cn, which will service the 100 million current Chinese Internet users, a number expected to nearly double in the next couple of years. And, Google will self-censor its site in order not to offend the Chinese government, arguing it would be worse to pull out of China altogether.

So is Google being shamelessly inconsistent in applying its principles, fighting censorship in the United States while embracing it in China? Not really -- because censorship isn't really the issue. Money is. Pornography generates huge revenue for Internet companies like Google. Many analysts say cybersmut is the engine driving the Internet, accounting for the largest flow of money into Internet company coffers. Google's fight against a Justice Department subpoena has more to do with the bottom line than the First Amendment.

And when it comes to profits, there is no bigger potential market than China -- which explains why Google is willing to play censor in the Middle Kingdom. Google wants users, period. And if gaining access to an enormous potential market means engaging in a little censorship, the company is more than willing to do it. What makes Google's behavior so hard to swallow is its sanctimony when the subject of censorship in the United States comes up.

If the company had been honest in fighting the Justice Department subpoena, it would have admitted that it doesn't want to turn over data because it has no interest in keeping kids away from hard-core sites. Google will happily provide porn to American kids and deny civil liberties to Chinese adults, all in the name of profit.