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Dvorak: Google vs. China vs. Evil

So Google goes into China to do business and goes along with the Chinese program of censorship already accepted by Yahoo!, MSN, and others. If a company wants to do business in China, such acceptance is part of the ground rules.

An outcry immediately ensues. Apparently Google should tell China to stuff it and stay out, or stay in but refuse to censor anything.

This is one of the funniest debates I've ever seen, and I can only blame Google for the controversy. It's the supposed company motto, "Do no evil," that is the crux of the problem.

I noticed the controversy crop up when Steve Newlin posted the first report on my blog, and then it came up again in the conversation over the weekend on the Twit podcast.

There, Steve Wozniak rambled on about the issue, taking the position that we should never interfere with other people's cultures.

I'm immediately thinking that Wozniak has watched too many episodes of "Star Trek," as what he was describing was beginning to sound like the "prime directive."

I, of course, brought up Hitler!

Meanwhile, people are demanding a boycott of Google.

To use what instead? The other search engine companies have all already caved in to Chinese demands for censorship. So what's the point?

Besides, Google is the only company protecting Americans' privacy by refusing to turn over search records to the Bush administration. The company apparently gets only one begrudged point for that act of bravery.

Like I said, I blame Google for its "Do no evil" motto.

I'm not sure when Sergey Brin first came up with this, but it's the culprit.

I have probably followed this company from the absolute beginning, first when Sergey used to do my radio show in the 1990s and then when we shared TV appearances. I never heard it then.

The first I ever heard of the "Do no evil" motto was on "60 Minutes" last year when Lesley Stahl, who seems clueless about computers, was interviewing Brin and his partners in a softball piece.

Even at the time when Brin said that motto on TV, I thought it was a little wacky.

What is it supposed to mean? Does it mean they pay bills on time? Does it mean they never fire anyone? What exactly does it mean?

I think it was said as an offhand swipe at Microsoft and was actually a joke. But it sounds good to the goody-goodies out there, so now Brin cannot rescind the comment without seeming like he's acquiescing in evil. He's toast in the debate. Now he has to stick by this comment.

Since evil is somewhat thematic in American culture today, with a president who is preoccupied by that word as well as by "evildoers" and the "axis of evil," I'm certain that Brin, who has an overly dry Russian-style ironic sense of humor, got his cue from George W. Bush. "Evildoers" and "Do no evil" seem connected to me.

So now the company has this motto as an albatross around its neck. Any false move or normal Silicon Valley business practice will be highlighted and the "Do no evil" motto will be thrown in the face of the executives.

If Eric Schmidt undertips a waitress at lunch, we'll hear about it as an evil act in violation of company policy.

All the debate over China aside, there is nothing wrong with a do-no-evil policy. I'd hope that this was a universal ideal we all strive for.

As one of my readers mentioned, it's the arrogance of the comment (or the perceived arrogance, if the comment was actually a put-on) that got everyone bent out of shape. "Who do they think they are? Above everyone else?"

Indeed, the comment does make it sound as if Google is somehow better than everyone else because of this supposed policy. Holier than thou. It's annoying. So the China thing comes along and boom, the evil hits the fan.

Now what can Google do about this? First of all, I don't think this really affects anything except the company principals, who have to live with never-ending ragging and finger-pointing and the "hypocrite!" moniker.

Perhaps some professional damage control will help. The company is clueless about that, and that, too, could be perceived as evil.

Or perhaps they can do what I suspect they'll do. Go into China promising to abide by government censorship and let the Chinese themselves figure out how to bypass the mechanism. Chinese computer users are not idiots.

Problem solved.

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