Big trouble in brittle China. (Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg)

Google Is Courting Trouble in China

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Google has some explaining to do.

The Intercept on Wednesday outlined the company’s discussions to possibly resume its internet search service in China, followed by another news report that said Google is also developing a potential digital news app for the country. It has been nearly a decade since Google scaled back operations in the country because cyberattacks on the company’s computer systems made executives think twice about their cooperation with China’s online censorship laws, particularly in light of Google’s limited relevance in the country.

It’s not clear that Google and China’s government will ever reach an agreement to reopen the company’s web search in the world’s largest internet market. Tensions between the U.S. and China are at a high point, and the country’s censorship restrictions haven’t eased. But if parent company Alphabet Inc. returns its search service to China, it is courting political trouble for itself in the U.S. and betraying its founding ideals in return for long odds of business success in a country that has moved on without Google.

In short, a return to China would be mostly downside for Google. 

Google Is Courting Trouble in China

Some other U.S. technology companies do operate in China and comply with myriad government rules on censorship and information sharing with government officials. Facebook’s social network is banned in China, although the company has tried various methods to find a way to open its doors in the country. Google has advertising and other initiatives in the country and has investments in Chinese companies. But its flagship product still has scars from its roughly four years operating in China beginning in 2006.

Google discovered in 2009 that Chinese hackers hit computer systems of it and other companies, pilfered Google computer code and tried to peer into Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights advocates. In early 2010, Google decided it didn’t want to operate its internet search from inside China’s borders anymore, with all the censorship restrictions and digital vulnerabilities that entailed. It didn’t help that Google’s market share in internet search paled in comparison to that of China’s Baidu Inc. Google moved its Chinese-language internet search to Hong Kong, and since then key Google services have been frequently inaccessible from China.

Sergey Brin, the Google co-founder who was born in the Soviet Union, has characterized his company’s retreat from China in moral terms. “In some aspects of their policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see the same earmarks of totalitarianism, and I find that personally quite troubling,” Brin told the Wall Street Journal in 2010.

Not everyone at the company agreed with Brin at the time or since, and it seems the cyberattacks were a big motivation. But if Google returns its search engine to China, it will have to explain why Brin’s stand against government censorship and surveillance no longer holds. If anything, China’s internet dragnet has become far more sophisticated and aggressive since Google left China. Just like every other internet company in the country, Google would have to blacklist search results people can see about news of the world, their own history, tawdry internet videos and even images of a portly fictional bear

In its home country, Google will feel heat if it resumes web search in China. You can count the minutes until politicians ask Google to explain why it refuses to sell artificial intelligence for a U.S. military program but would help China’s government censor information from its own citizens. (It’s already happening on Twitter.) Google employees who protested selling AI tech to the U.S. Defense Department are already fuming about cooperation with China. What happened to making the world “universally accessible,” the company’s mission statement?

What’s the point, then? Money, of course, and the potential to reach China’s nearly 800 million internet users — more than twice the population of the U.S. Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Alphabet’s Google unit, has said he wants Google to reach the whole world, and that includes China. 

Google Is Courting Trouble in China

But it’s not clear Google would make much headway in China with search or other technologies. Since Google’s China retreat, the country’s consumer tech market has exploded by catering to local tastes and habits. China’s internet is like nothing else in the world — not only because of the ripple effects of censorship — and Google may not be what China’s internet surfers want. China doesn’t need Google, even if Google wants China. 

I assume Google is trying to play a long game commercially. The company can see the potential business benefits in China from from its cloud computing, artificial intelligence and other technologies beyond internet search, and the company's flagship product may be a precursor to advancing Google’s other business interests in China. OK. But Google’s headaches from deepening its business in China are easy to see. Are the possible future commercial opportunities worth the howls of Google’s employees and U.S. officials, and the betrayal of a moral stand? 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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