Google has chosen to close their mainland Chinese business and redirect Chinese-originating traffic to its Hong Kong servers. These facts are not in debate. The debate rages instead over why Google took this action, whether other companies or governments should support or mimic Google, and what benefits or damages will accrue to Google as a result.
Some point to public statements made on Google’s official blog and by their corporate legal officers. Taken at face value, Google represents itself as acting upon a mixture of idealistic principles and reaction to being the victim of a coordinated security attack. US business reporting has been divided between mockery of Google’s naiveté, predictions of dire impact on Google’s Chinese business, and cynicism at Google’s pointless PR ploy. US tech industry reporting seems divided between applauding Google’s courage and disparaging Google for taking this action so lately. This frames the business debate in the same horse-race noise that drowns policy out of our political discourse.
It should come as no surprise that editorialists rarely understand what Google does for a living and therefore leave Google’s product out of their stories.
Google’s search mission is to provide the fastest, most accurate, most relevant results for anyone who looks. Imagine now how hard it would be as a company to reconcile this mission, which inspires your employees decisions, clarifies your value to your customers, and provides the basis for your search-advertising business model, with a requirement to deliberately damage your search results according to fluctuating, inconsistent, political demands by innumerable censors with variable authority and backed by legal threats of corporate fines and detention of personnel. It is quite literally impossible for Google to ever be “in compliance” because the rules are ambiguous and constantly changing. It sounds like a nightmare to manage. A constant battle between acceding to demands promptly to show flexibility versus foot-dragging to stem the overwhelming tide of demands. Not to mention that breaking with one hand the tool that you are building with the other is a stupid place to find yourself as a company. So too, the costs to Google company morale of hiring employees to deliberately break the work of other employees are incalculable.
Less cognitive dissonance is probably generated by breaking Google’s individual account mission than by breaking its search mission. The mission for the individual account product surely includes being the most reliable, accessible and secure, personal information repository possible. Again this core product mission of would be directly at odds with Google taking political actions against their own account holders, whether the attack is demanded by a government or a corporation. A company which tries to be both a model for integrity and a backdoor for secret police, is going to incur great costs from employee and customer disapproval when it gets found out.
Google’s good will remains remarkably high for such a powerful and successful juggernaut of a company. Ignored in many of the business reflections I read discussing Google’s decision, is the economic impact to Google of damaging this consumer good will through behavior most of their customers and employees would consider “evil,” namely, handing over the accounts of anyone the Chinese government wished to spy on.
Google’s decision to withdraw from the Chinese mainland may look like it will lead to permanently lost revenue through exclusion from the Chinese market. But from the Product point of view, the costs of remaining in China would have been vastly more expensive.