Thomas Jungbauer is an assistant professor of strategy and business economics at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University and author of the blog A Stable Match.
Since news broke this month that Google is developing a censored search engine for the Chinese market, the company and its chief executive, Sundar Pichai, have taken heat. Critics argue that in complying with China’s “Great Firewall,” the technology giant would legitimize the country’s censorship regime while ignoring the ruling Communist Party’s systematic human rights violations.
No doubt, these concerns are valid. But there is another possible result from Google’s return to Chinese cyberspace: disrupting the country’s firm control over the Internet.
As Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the Fortune Global Forum in China last year: “Each country in the world decides their laws and their regulations. And so your choice is: Do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be?”
Google may be following such a path in China. According to the Intercept, Google’s censored Mandarin search engine — developed under the internal project name Dragonfly — would automatically filter sites blocked by the government, removing them from the first page of search results and replacing them with a disclaimer disclosing government censorship. The Intercept also reports that no results would appear for “blacklist sensitive queries.”
It’s unclear whether banned content would be available beyond the first page of search results. It’s possible that links would be available — at least initially — beyond the first page, offering valuable details to users about what authorities are censoring. But Google could still do some good even if China required the company to remove banned content from all pages in its search engine.
Disclaimers on blocked sites would serve as a constant reminder of the state’s ubiquitous censorship. They could also indicate to users which topics the Chinese authorities don’t want openly discussed. The bigger Google’s market share in China, the more effective this reminder would be.
Would a major market presence in China allow Google to upend the status quo, little by little? History suggests it could. Knowledge gradually trickling into centrally planned economies during the Cold War contributed to the downfall of many authoritarian governments. Just a few years ago, technology empowered opposition movements during the Arab Spring.
The power of any oppressive government in the short term is a direct function of its level of control and organization, as well as its military strength. The system’s long-run stability, however, depends on the authorities’ ability to shield its citizens from outside information to prevent a critical mass demanding change.
This is not to say that Google’s plans to enter the Chinese market necessarily stem from a desire to undermine the Communist Party. In a world where a company’s success is frequently measured by its growth rate, the largest market in the world represents a massive expansion opportunity. If Google can penetrate China in a way that makes business sense and does good at the same time, why stand in its way?
Dragonfly seemingly leaked at the wrong time for Google, which was recently fined a record $5 billion by the European Union for violating antitrust law. Yet if Google can fully grasp and embrace the potentially positive impact of its return to China, it could benefit from the venture both in terms of revenue and reputation.