Preston Gralla

Is Google turning to the dark side with its new China policy?

January 12, 2012 9:21 AM EST

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Google, which has taken a principled stand by refusing to censor its search results in China, may be slipping to the dark side as it considers launching the Android Market there. The Chinese government censors apps, and so an Android Market launch could mean the company will bow to the censorship demands of China's ruling party.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Google, worried about losing out in the world's largest Internet market, has been hiring engineers, sales staff, and product managers in China in preparation for launching new services there.

There's certainly nothing wrong with that. Creating jobs and offering consumers new services is a good thing, as long as it doesn't help the autocratic Chinese government limit people's freedom.

But worrisome is that according to the Journal, the core of Google's expansion into China is the Android Market. The newspaper interviewed Daniel Alegre, the top Google executive in Asia. It reports:

In particular, Google is aiming to capitalize on its fast-growing Android operating system for mobile devices, online-advertising and product-search services to grow in China, Mr. Alegre said in an interview.

One goal, he said, is to introduce its Android Market, which offers thousands of mobile applications to users of Android-powered smartphones and tablets but isn't available in China.
The newspaper later notes:
Introducing Android Market could pose some censorship issues for Google. Non-Google app stores that currently run on China-based Android devices filter out apps that violate Chinese regulations.
The most notable app store that censors apps is the biggest one on the planet, Apple's App Store. Apple has been only too happy to agree to Chinese demands to ban apps that the government doesn't want people to see or use. For example, many apps that merely mention the Dalai Lama have been banned at the behest of the Chinese government.

Banning these apps for the government may be the single most hypocrital thing Apple has ever done, considering that as part of its famous "Think Different" campaign, Apple used a photo of the Dalai Lama to hype its products.

Apple has agreed to ban other apps as well, including those that mention Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer.

If Google launches the Android Market in China, it will have to do the same. It would be a dramatic about-face for Google co-founder Sergey Brin who at the time of the decision to pull its search engine out of China told the Journal that China's censorship efforts reminded him of the Soviet Union's "totalitarianism." Brin was born in the Soviet Union. He said of China, "In some aspects of their policy, particularly with respect to censorship, I see the same earmarks of totalitarianism, and I find that personally quite troubling."

No decision appears to have been made yet about whether to offer the Android Market in China. I'm hoping that financial expediency doesn't win out over morality. Google's previous decision to forgo profits from China in order to take a stand against autocracies and censorship was the right thing to do. It's still the right thing to do today.