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INTERNET: Google Feels China Backlash from Own Employees

Bottom line: An internal petition calling on Google to be more transparent about its plans to return to China represents the first major backlash to the move, but is unlikely to dissuade the company from going ahead.

When the news first broke a couple of weeks ago that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) was planning a return to China's search market, many predicted that western sources would be quick to criticize the plan, even though few voices have actually spoken out so far. Fast forward a couple of weeks, when we are hearing the first sounds of what's likely to become a sea of protests if and when the company actually makes its China search homecoming.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, the first salvo in the storm of protest that could soon emerge is coming from within Google itself, with word that employees are circulating a petition raising questions about the reported move. (English article) This kind of internal debate could be especially troubling, since the last thing that Google wants is an uprising within its own ranks at such a delicate time.

What's more, the idealists within the company's midst will have plenty of ammo for questioning why a country whose policies were considered too oppressive in the past should suddenly now be considered acceptable. Of course in my view a big element of this story is money, which is hardly a sturdy ground to stand on for a company whose motto is "do no evil". 

Before we go any further, let's review what's actually happened these past few weeks, starting with the big news that got this whole thing started. Things began about two weeks ago when an apparently concerned Google employee leaked word that the company was developing a new China-specific search engine, complete with software and algorithms that would filter out sensitive topics in compliance with Beijing's laws. (previous post)

Google was mum on the topic, but the level of detail in the report, including the cloak-and-dagger-like project name of Dragonfly, certainly gave it a fair amount of credibility. Google abruptly shuttered its China-based search service in 2010, following a high-profile spat with Beijing over the country's strict self-policing policies. Since then China's Internet economy has boomed, and the nation has become the world's biggest smartphone and mobile Internet market. And as any smartphone user knows, the big majority of the world's smartphones are powered by Google's free Android operating system.

More Transparency

All of that brings us to the present, when media are reporting about this internal petition being circulated by Google employees urging it to think twice about its decision. The petition isn't calling for an absolute revocation of the decision, but rather for more transparency in what's happening, according to one report. The petition is also calling for Google to set up an ethics commission to review projects like this one that could raise ethical questions.

A Reuters report cites three former Google employees saying the company's thinking is that filtered search services are still a better alternative than no services at all. I did my own survey on the topic here in China last week, and found that indeed a sizable majority of people I surveyed, about two-thirds, said they would seriously consider making Google their primary search engine if the company did return to China. (English article

In that same piece I wrote on my findings, I also pointed out that a local commentary in the Communist Party's official People's Daily newspaper was correct in astutely noting that Google had become a "politicized brand". Somewhat ironically, or perhaps some might say aptly, that People's Daily article was later taken offline, highlighting the fact that China is hardly a society that welcomes open debate.

All of that brings us back to this latest petition, and what's likely to happen next, including whether Google will ultimately return to China. Clearly many Chinese would like to have access to the world's leading search engine, many believing it would offer better choices to scandal-tainted local market leader Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU).

I still personally believe, perhaps cynically, that Google's primary motivation in all this is money, and it's willing to take such a big risk because the profit potential is just too big to ignore. At the same time, as someone here on the ground I do really see demand for this product from local Internet users, which could provide some moral justification for Google's return. At the end of the day, I have to believe that Google was already prepared for this kind of backlash, even if this first wave is coming from within, and will move ahead with the plan barring any extreme developments.

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