Google, China, and sensitivity training

Published: by

Everyone appears to have analyzed the Google and China issue to death, both from the China perspective and the Google perspective. One of the best comments I have seen is from Fred Wilson's "A VC" blog, where he focuses on the reported fierce disagreements between Eric Schmidt, the hired gun non-founder CEO, who wanted to continue doing business in China and sweep the issues under the rug, and Sergei Brin, the founder born under Communism, who insisted on pulling out. Fred goes on to expand to the general differences between founder CEOs and non-founder CEOs. I suspect the late great Akio Morita of Sony fame would agree. When I was in business school at Duke, we looked at Sony under the wave of MBAs who ruled the roost after Morita-san, and the lack of innovation therein, in a company that invented and successfully marketed many of the great innovations of the second half of the 20th century.

I suspect, however, that there is more to the story than either the realists or idealists (or Jacksonites vs. Wilsonians, if you prefer foreign policy) may be seeing.

In its early years, Google was not only a much better, faster and more accurate search engine than Yahoo (or MSN, AskJeeves, Excite, AltaVista, and many of the competitors in the digital dustbin). Its motto was "Don't be evil." After some of the DoubleClick and other privacy debacles - some of which are laughable today - as well as the debate in the United States about government intrusion into calling records from major telecoms providers, there was great hunger for a company whose entire personality seemed to be, well, "behave." Google's foray into China, with its self-censorship, has definitely damaged its image in that respect. However, Google is too big and dominant to care that much.

Now, however, Google's growth has slowed, other competitors are moving into the market, and, most importantly, mobile is the hot new area. Google wants its android, and possibly its HTC-partnered phone, to be major elements in its future growth plans. However, privacy in the old Web 1.0 or even 2.0 is child's play compared with privacy in mobile. Your phone operator - and likely operating system provider, especially an online one like Google - knows who you called, where you are, where you were. It could probably even figure out if you were linked via Bluetooth to a car and the speed and route the car took; any local law enforcement would love to be able to boost revenues issuing tickets that way.

If Google really wants to dominate in the mobile area the way it has on the Web, it is desperately in need of regaining its "Don't be evil" image. While I have great respect for Brin, and he undoubtedly does remember life under the Communists, Google's plans for future growth are likely a major factor in its China decision.