Obviously this contradicts its stated desire to make information freely available to everybody on the planet, and it contradicts its mission statement: "don't be evil." As Mike Langberg at the San Jose Mercury News puts it: their revised motto should now read "don't be evil more than necessary."
Everybody and their dog is reporting on this new development, and I've even been quoted. But as of this writing the new Google.cn service has not actually gone live (right now when you type Google.cn into your browser you are re-directed to: http://www.google.com/ig?hl=zh-CN , which is their Chinese language service hosted in the U.S.). Nobody has yet had the chance actually to see this Google.cn. So what do we know? We know that they - like everybody else doing internet information services in China - are committing evil. But I want to get a better sense for exactly where they rank on the evil scale. To give them a score, I need to see and play with the search engine, but since it's not up yet, I can't.
(UPDATE AT 8:40am EST Weds: I still can't access Google.cn but apparently some in China now can. The Chinese blogger "Undersound" has some initial Chinese blogger reactions over at Global Voices. He includes a link to a screenshot showing what the censor message looks like in the search results.)
What we do know at this point is that Google seems to be trying to minimize it's evilness in several ways, according to how their statements describe the service:
1. Google says they will put up a notice at the bottom of the search page informing users when the results have been filtered. To my knowledge, none of their competitors in China are doing this. Therefore, while not escaping evilness, they do get a brownie point for being more transparent and honest with Chinese users than their competition. But to see how big this brownie point should be, we need to look at where that notification is placed on the page and how obvious it is to the user. We also need to see whether the Chinese government tries to get them to remove that notice, and if so whether they hold their ground.
2. They say that they will have a link somewhere on the Google.cn page enabling users to access the U.S.-hosted version at: http://www.google.com/ig?hl=zh-CN. So that Chinese users who prefer can opt for the pre-Google.cn experience. The question is: how prominent will this option be on the page and how well explained will it be? Will it be something that only a very small number of people know to use? Or will it be promoted and clearly explained as an option? Also, what happens if the Chinese netnannies use the existence of Google.cn as an excuse to block the U.S.-hosted Google entirely? That would be very bad. And if that happens, how will Google respond? Will they shrug their shoulders and sigh? Or will they push back?
3. Google says it has opted not to provide any services such as email or blogging services that would require hosting user data inside Chinese jurisdiction. This is a clear choice they have made to avoid having to turn users over to the Chinese police as Yahoo did or to censor bloggers as Microsoft does. Will they stick to this choice or will the lure of business draw them deeper into evilness?
I don't like the fact that Google is censoring in China at all. Google spokespeople liken what they do in China to the filtering they do in France and Germany - censoring porn and Nazi sites in compliance with their laws. I do not believe you can compare compliance to laws in democratic societies to what they're doing in China. In France and Germany, there is some connection between the laws and the user's consent. People in those countries have the ability to vote out of office the politicians who make unpopular laws. Chinese users have no way of punishing their government for its censorship policies by voting the current group of leaders out of office.
But now that Google is censoring, I think we need to watch very closely to see how transparent it will be about what it's censoring and why: how honest it is going to be with Chinese users? One of the big problems with the search experience in China right now is that if you use Yahoo or Baidu or Sina search, you have no way of knowing that information exists out there that you've been denied access to. Google will at least be letting people know: "hey, there's a lot more out there which people outside China can see, but your government won't let me show it to you." That is at least a positive step towards honesty and respect for the Chinese user's intelligence. Will that lead to greater user trust and thus greater competitive advantage? If so, might that force other companies to be more honest with their users as well? Or is this all wishful dreaming?
At the end of the day, this compromise puts Google a little lower on the evil scale than many other internet companies in China. But is this compromise something Google should be proud of? No. They have put a foot further into the mud. Now let's see whether they get sucked in deeper or whether they end up holding their ground.
On another related development: Today the Wall Street Journal reports (subscription required) that technology companies seem to be discussing a possible industry-wide code of conduct for doing business in China:
...some U.S. tech companies are working behind the scenes to craft for the Internet in China an equivalent of the Sullivan Principles, guidelines formulated in the 1970s that helped mobilize U.S. corporate divestment to protest South African apartheid.
It will be very interesting to see if that really ends up happening.