In March 2010, Google stopped its google.cn search service on the Chinese mainland and redirected traffic to its Hong Kong site-google.hk. This was a response to cyber attacks on Chinese human rights activists by the Chinese government in and outside of China. Moral judgments aside, this is my argument that Google actually has more in common with China than not, and that the best follow-up questioning to this event revolves not around the Google vs. China debate, but what their commonalities mean for us all.
In the virtual world, “Google” has become synonymous with “search” – the founding value behind most countries – while “Made in China” has become a brand in the physical world. Both China and Google have embraced “simulacra and simulation” to the nth degree (Baudrillard). While Google leads in producing simulations of our world online, China has copied or simulated just about every product known to man, from Gucci glasses to prescription drugs. Jia Zhang Ke’s “The World” expresses the darker effects of this on the Chinese citizen’s psyche. At the same time, the Chinese Film Bureau accepted this film and assisted the production. Whatever your thoughts on the moral discussions surrounding Google and China, no one can challenge the fact that both have made their services and products as close to free and available to all as possible.
The origins of this power dually stems from data. Both Google and China have capitalized on controlling user/citizenry information to achieve rapid growth. Since Google’s Initial Public Offering on August 18, 2004, it’s grown from an opening price of $85 per share to $600.14 per share last Friday. In China, “restructuring of the economy and resulting efficiency gains have contributed to a more than tenfold increase in GDP since 1978” (CIA World Factbook). For Google users and Chinese citizens alike, the result is technological benefits.
Of all the businesses on Earth, Google is most like a country, and of all the countries on Earth, China is most like a business. Any perception of China compromising the individual must be scrutinized through the lens of “what is the fastest, most efficient route to economic growth?” Plans for Electronic Health Records online. Relocating residents for construction. Working overtime. Media control. The watchdog group Reporters without Borders ranked China 171 out of 178 countries in its 2010 worldwide index of press freedom. But before settling on this perception of China, consider this: where else is ritualized self-promotion and censoring dissent the status quo? Business. If you circulate an email badmouthing your boss or company, you are apt to get fired. No businesses publicize their weaknesses. Most hide them, some illegally. I’m not making a value judgment on whether or not government is the place for homogenizing beliefs. I am saying that the Chinese government maintains the appearance of unanimous accord in order to achieve maximum economic growth. And just as in business, one effect is social benefits for a lower cost. As the Chinese GDP has grown, so has life expectancy increased, infant mortality rate decreased, calories taken in per day grown, etc. Is China spying on its people or sharing the benefits of a country united under a common goal?
Now for the parallel: out of all the businesses on Earth, Google’s is most like a country. Why? What defines a country? Well, it’s a place you’re born into. You generally don’t question the fact that your identity is all wrapped up in it until you start asking existential questions. Of course a country is a physical place and Google is a virtual realm, but I think the distinction between the two is less meaningful by the day. The Net Generation of people who grew up gnawing on iPads were “born into” Google’s 40+ online services. Long before reaching maturity, their identity is just as indelibly wrapped up in Google’s metadata as it is in their respective countries. That “Net Generation” refers to a global group is indicative in of itself.
Another key attribute of countries is that they have governments, which justify their use of top-secret intelligence agencies with social benefits. Similarly, all of the free technological benefits that Google provides us with (Google Earth, the search engine, Gmail, G+, Games) must also be examined through the lens of “what is the easiest, most pervasive way to collect as much information as possible about our users?” Google dominates the virtual world as an identity company that harvests 99% of revenues from its Adsense program. In this sense, Google shares a primary similarity with countries, and none more so than China: its business model or “power” is based on collecting information about its users or “citizens.” But again, is Google spying on its users or sharing the technological benefits of a user community all contributing to a common goal?
I use as many of Google’s services as I can. I don’t care if they have my digital identity. I trust them. But I also don’t care if the Chinese government has my identity. I trust them, too. There’s a lot we could learn from the Chinese. As unemployment rises, the US economy tanks, and our healthcare and education systems limp behind countries like China and Singapore, the American public may do well to ask themselves what could be gained by uniting under the common goal of collective progress. Theoretically, Americans have the freedom to define that as economic, social and environmental advance. I do. Under this goal, determining factors shift from individual gains to solutions that enable life on Earth as a whole to progress towards a more healthy, stable and ultimately successful existence.
To me, the generally accepted moral distinction between Google and China is fuzzy at best. The bigger question is whether or not the global community believes rapid growth is worth the cost to individual privacy. I wonder what the net result is to you: spying or sharing?