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Monday, January 30, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Silicon Valley view

In China, Google founders wake up to the real world

Knight Ridder Newspapers

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Now is the time for Google to change its motto from the overly ambitious "Don't Be Evil" to the more realistic "Don't Be More Evil Than Necessary."

You can't live in the real world without making compromises, as Google is now tacitly admitting by launching its first Internet search operation based in China.

To run an Internet business in China, companies local and foreign must sign an agreement to effectively censor themselves — removing or blocking any information China's repressive government might find objectionable.

Google has now signed that agreement. The search service it will run within China won't point to Web sites of dissident groups such as Falun Gong, or sites advocating independence for Taiwan. And the service certainly won't offer reports on how Chinese police recently responded to unarmed protesters in small villages by shooting them.

There's also more than a little irony in Google announcing the move last week, after the company got headlines earlier this month for defying U.S. government requests to hand over information about its users' online behavior. Such defiance wouldn't be tolerated for a minute in China; Google would immediately get booted out of the country.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page were idealistic young Stanford University graduate students when they started Google in 1998. Much of that idealism still survives.

In April 2004 they wrote a "founder's letter," included in the documents for Google's initial public stock offering, in which they cited "Don't Be Evil" as a corporate goal.

"We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served ... by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains," the pair wrote. "We aspire to make Google an institution that makes the world a better place."

I believe Brin and Page, both now 32, have largely succeeded. Google has certainly made my life better — I use it dozens of times every day.

But I also believe the Mountain View company will tie itself in knots unnecessarily if it doesn't acknowledge the ambiguities in managing a multibillion-dollar corporation operating all around the planet.

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Andrew McLaughlin, a Google lawyer, tackled those ambiguities in a prepared statement released Tuesday.

"In order to operate from China, we have removed some content from the search results available on Google.cn in response to local law, regulation or policy," McLaughlin said. "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information ... is more inconsistent with our mission."

In other words, the lesser evil of knuckling under to China's odious censorship rules is outweighed by the greater good of providing Google to China's 1.3 billion.

McLaughlin further said Google will introduce other services in China, such as e-mail and blogging, "only when we are comfortable that we can do so in a way that strikes a proper balance among our commitments to satisfy users' interests, expand access to information and respond to local conditions."

Sooner or later, though, Google will encounter a stark choice between money and morals if it keeps doing business in China. The same will be true in many other countries.

Only by abandoning the first blush of youthful certainty will Google be able to tiptoe through this minefield. I hope Brin and Page, who retain tight control over Google, have the wisdom to distinguish between doing the best job possible and doing only the right thing.

Mike Langberg is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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