The week in technology: To be evil or not to be evil

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Google on Wednesday came in for some harsh criticism from bloggers, outraged at its decision to set up a censored Chinese version of its website which will block results in order to avoid angering the country’s Communist government. The site will not provide Gmail or other services that will open up its use to unfettered expression.

A quick query on Google’s own blog search service service brought up hundreds of references to the move. A random sample showed that most bloggers were vehemently against the policy.

Several bloggers said the move made a nonsense of the company’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto, which always suggested the company’s corporate mentality was different to other companies - a philosphy which made Google a bloggers’ favourite or a “white white knight of industry that led by example”.

”Apparently you can scratch ‘censorship in pursuit of profit’ off your list of Things That Are Evil” wrote John Murrell on Good Morning Silicon Valley, who went on to liken the move “to watching little Anakin grow into Darth Vader”.

“’Don’t be evil’ indeed. Google needs a few lessons in living up to its founders’ motto. It is certainly complicit in evil nowadays regarding its behaviour in China, said Richard Silverstein on Tikun Olam.

Jay Nargundkar on Citizens Band reminded Google of three of the “Ten Things” that outline its philosophy: “4. Democracy on the web works, 6. You can make money and my favourite 8. The need for information crosses all borders”. See all 10 things here.

The results of an FT poll which asked if Google was being evil was backed by a majority of respondents.

Many in the blogosphere agreed that Google had now joined other internet companies, such as Yahoo and Microsoft, in selling out their principles for rapid growth and big bucks in China.

This is the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night,” said Kean a Canadian blogger on Live Journal.

“Because business with China is so damn lucrative, not even Google is immune to China’s demands for censorship. It’s extremely disappointing that no one is taking a hard stance against China and their ongoing efforts to curb free speech,” he added.

“Google is losing ground to competitors in the [Chinese] market. It’s all about the benjamins,” said a writer on Ninthspace.

“Google’s offering of a bowdlerized version of itself to its Chinese customers is pathetic. The Times reports that the company has been disappointed at its loss of market share to Chinese competitors. So how exactly does offering a stripped down Google which sheds many of its best features supposed to win them back?,” asked Richard Silverstein.

Aware of the trade-offs it is making, Google executives said they believed the company could play a more positive role by participating in the Chinese market, despite restrictions, than by boycotting the country in order to avoid such compromises.

Dave Briggs described Google’s reasons for limiting the Chinese service as “utter nonsense”.

“Google is a search engine, and is measured by its reliability and accuracy in searching. If they are deliberately providing a hamstrung performance just to please an authoritarian government, then they are going directly against their very reason for existence. I am not claiming that Google should act as an agent on behalf of subversive groups in China, but to exclude results because of their political content is a disgrace.

“I can only assume that this comes down to revenue. For Google to earn the revenues they can in China they must provide an always-on, reliable service. They are putting money ahead of ethics.”

Reporters Without Borders, the France-based human rights group, blasted Google on their website saying it was an immoral decision that could not be justified.

“By offering a version without ‘subversive’ content, Google is making it easier for Chinese officials to filter the Internet themselves. A website not listed by search engines has little chance of being found by users. The new Google version means that even if a human rights publication is not blocked by local firewalls, it has no chance of being read in China,” it said in a statement.

Mr Briggs was not alone in pointing out the irony of the news in the light of Google’s stalwart refusal to join rivals and provide information about users’ searches to the US government.

“If Google can deny it to the US government, why can’t they take a stand against China? Because they already have the market share in the US, and have to do everything they can to grab as many users as possible in the emerging markets like China.”

“It’s not easy to ‘do no evil’. Just ask Google. They put up a tough fight against the US Justice Department, to wide acclaim from just about everybody. But in China, Google rolls over and plays dead,” said Secular Blasphemy.

Richard Silverstein’s blog pointed out that Google already had a history of bowing to Chinese authorities.

“Until now, Chinese internet users have been forced to access Google through Google.com and the company’s international server network. But it had no internal server network within China to service its customers there. I’ve written here recently about China’s success at shutting down access to Google News when stories it disapproved of were reported. Google has acquiesced in such Chinese stifling of internet freedom. It’s also revealed that it censors web searches which it knows would offend Chinese authorities.”

Another blogger reminded readers that Google had not included websites that are blocked by the government in its Chinese search results ever since China briefly denied access to Google in 2002.

Sites outside China often suffer slowdowns or are blocked under a system - nicknamed the “great firewall” - in which the web in China is walled off from the global Internet.

It was possible to make out some more moderate responses amid the angry voices, with some bloggers agreeing with Google that it was better to be in than out.

To the hard core this sounds like Google is selling out. To me it sounds like hey are trying to change the system from the inside. OK, again for the purists this is doomed to fail as you never achieve the goal you set out to achieve. The final result is a compromise, said 5thPercentile.com.

“What the purists miss though, is that the other side needs to compromise also. Even a small advance would make a big difference for freedom of speech in China. And who knows what abuses of the Google API will be slipped under the Radar by those clever Chinese hackers,” it added.

“Necessary evil? It’s debatable. I’ve blogged about this topic before in connection with Yahoo! and Shi Tao, and realize there are no easy answers,” said Citizens Band.

“It comes down to how well Google reacts to the first or the second or the hundredth clash with China,” said John Palfrey, from the OpenNet Initiative, describing China as “the most repressive censorship regime on the Internet”.

Microsoft serves up source code...

Microsoft tried to appease European Union regulators this week when they offered up parts of their source code to rival software companies.

The source code provides the building blocks of the operating system that competitors need to make products compatible with Windows. Microsoft, which faces a daily fine if it does not bow to demands, argued this went beyond compliance with an EU antitrust ruling.

But Neelie Kroes, EU competition commissioner, appeared to be a little bemused by the offer, describing it as a “surprise” and hinted that she might side with Microsoft rivals who claimed the offer wasn’t the sort of compromise they were looking for.

“Normally speaking, the source code is not the ultimate documentation of anything, which is precisely the reason why programmers are required to provide comprehensive documentation to go along with their source code,” she said.

The European Commission did say they would examine the proposals, but that they hadn’t received any details yet.

David Hunter on hunterstrat.com quoted a Commission spokesman who later clarified the bloc’s position: “They could give us half a million pages, but if it’s not the right information to allow competitors to make Microsoft-compatible workgroup server products it doesn’t solve the problem of compliance”.

Ovum, the technology analysts, also criticised the offer saying it was “superficially appealing”.

“Source code is of little practical benefit to those trying to develop interoperable code — there is simply too much of it, and it’s too hard to understand.” Ovum analysts Gary Barnett and David Mitchell wrote in an e-mail to clients, quoted on PCWorld.

Instead, Microsoft should work with the Commission to figure out what’s wrong with the technical documentation it has provided, the analysts said.

Paul DeMartino writing on Reuters.com warned the reversal of Microsoft’s closed-source policy is likely to open the floodgates for malware.

...and may be in the mood for music

Meanwhile, a BusinessWeek article which scooped a Microsoft plan to build a digital music player to rival Apple’s iPod sent ripples of excitement through the blogosphere.

“After getting trounced for four years in the digital music business by Apple Computer, Microsoft finally seems poised to do something about it,” said Jennifer Chappell on Gadgetsonthego.net.

Microsoft hasn’t decided if it will go ahead. But sources inside the company and at its partners say Microsoft has put together a team that’s considering the business end of such an initiative,” she added.

The company is reportedly thinking about a handheld that would combine games - one of Microsoft’s strengths - with audio and video entertainment, a realm in which the company is a novice compared to Apple.

“It can’t just be our version of the iPod,” said Peter Moore, head of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business.

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