Bottom line: A major new campaign calling on Google to abandon its plan to return to China’s search market will add pressure on the company to reconsider its decision, but is unlikely to succeed unless the pressure grows significantly stronger.
If Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) CEO Sundar Pichai thought he could quietly launch a new filtered China search engine without any major backlash, he’s quickly finding out otherwise. The search giant’s controversial plan to return to the world’s biggest search market is facing its stiffest resistance to date, in a frontal assault coordinated by human rights group Amnesty International and Google’s own employees.
The message from both groups is the same: Don’t do it. In Amnesty’s case, the group has launched an online petition (announcement) calling on Google not to go through with the plan, code named Dragonfly, that was first uncovered back in August. (previous post) At the same time, a group of more than 300 Google employees has signed a petition urging the company to reconsider its China plans on the blogging site Medium. (online petition)
Not wanting to leave any social media stone uncovered, the group also launched a Twitter account on Tuesday called “Googlers Against Dragonfly,” with the handle @dropdragonfly. In its brief lifetime, the site has issued 17 tweets, and managed to gather a group of 580 followers.
In this highly coordinated and noisy campaign, my favorite is the petition page on Amnesty’s website, which initially looks like an error page for something that doesn’t exist. But closer inspection shows it’s a real page with the message: “Error! Something has gone horribly wrong. Google wants to trade internet freedoms for profit.”
All levity aside, this campaign definitely marks the most serious challenge to Google’s plans in the roughly three months since the first report appeared. A group of Google employees previously called on the company to be more transparent with the plan, but stopped short of calling for a scrapping of the effort. (previous post)
For the uninitiated, Google had been operating a search engine in China for six years starting in 2004, but then abruptly shuttered the site after a high-profile spat in 2010 over Beijing’s strict self-policing requirements to remove sensitive material. That move drew praise from the same groups that are now starting to come forward and criticize Google’s plans to return to the market.
Not Without Precedent
This kind of move certainly isn’t unprecedented among foreign Internet companies eyeing the huge China market. Professional networking specialist LinkedIn and homestay specialist Airbnb have both launched China-based services over the last few years, requiring them to adhere to various local policies that would probably be considered violations of individual privacy in the west. In both of those instances, the companies issued lengthy explanations for their moves to deflect potential criticism, and largely managed to avoid major controversy.
Such companies typically argue their services are helping to make China more open, which may be the case. But cynics like myself also note that these same companies are hardly charitable organizations, and are mostly coming to China due to the huge profit potential the country offers due to its rapid economic growth.
Google’s case is slightly different from the others because it once blasted China for its policies, and now appears to be saying maybe such policies are tolerable after all. The biggest factor behind this apparent change of heart has probably been the rapid rise over the last few years of Google’s Android operating system, which powers the vast majority of China’s smartphones.
Google’s Chinese-language websites, including the main one in Hong Kong, are currently all blocked in China. But a China-based site almost certainly would get Beijing’s blessing and thus avoid being blocked, and would be a natural choice as the default engine on hundreds of millions of Chinese Android-powered smartphones. That could translate to a huge windfall due to the huge demand for search-based advertising in China, an area that is currently the nearly exclusive domain of homegrown giant Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU).
All that brings us back to the latest headlines, and what they might mean for Google’s dreams of a return to China search. Previous reports have indicated that Pinchai, who almost certainly made the decision to launch Dragonfly, might be having second thoughts following previous pressure. That may be true, but the pressure so far, including this latest campaign, is probably still insufficient to stop current plans.
That could change if the pressure increases, which is always possible and even likely in this case if governments or other major organizations start to join the outcry. But if I were betting, I would still give Google a better than 50 percent chance of ultimately moving ahead with the plan.