January 29, 2010, 12:00 AM

Publisher's Letter: Google: The search for freedom in China

Google: The search for freedom in China

I`ve always been a fan of Google. It`s a classic American tale of two entrepreneurs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both Ph.D. students at Stanford, who only 15 years ago founded the company on the simple premise that searching the web should deliver the most meaningful and relevant results. They were hardly the first to build a search engine, but they were guided by some pretty good principles that served them well.

First among these was their laser focus on perfecting their product before they made money on it. While Yahoo and other search engines were cashing in on flashy advertising, the boys at Google spent their time in the early years working on developing a better search engine. The company was in operation for several years before Google started selling advertising, and they made the wise decision to sell only short text ads that were clearly separated from the ÒnaturalÓ search results. That put the emphasis on the customer`s desire to search for the site that best matched their search phrase. Everyone knows what followed: Google took over two-thirds of the lucrative search business and Yahoo, the erstwhile leader, was left in the dust.

Google has also been customer-driven in its acquisitions, the most ambitious of which was YouTube. When Google acquired YouTube in 2006 for $1.6 billion, the free video web site already had legions of followers. It just hadn`t figured out a way to make money by hosting countless videos that required many terabytes of data storage. Google, however, saw that YouTube fit perfectly into its model of providing web users with end-to-end web services based on its domination of the search business. The money would eventually follow.

Google treats employees with the same respect it treats web users. The company ranks fourth in Fortune magazine`s current list of the Top 100 Best Companies to Work For. Sure, it cut back a few of its lavish perks during the Great Recession, but, Fortune reported, it also expanded its 401(k) match at the same time, and it still allows its engineers to spend 20% of their workday on projects they choose. In short, Google became arguably the world`s most powerful Internet company, but is staying true to its corporate motto: Don`t be evil.

So it was with some surprise and mild disappointment that Google some time ago accepted government censorship in China in order to gain and expand its foothold in the world`s fastest-growing market. Once China`s most powerful businesses became reliant on search to expand around the world, Google figured, the Chinese would eventually be forced to accept the Internet as a global communications network without restrictions on access or expressionÑthe 21st century symbol of freedom.

Unfortunately, despite its unparalleled growth in the last 30 years and its phenomenal rise as a capitalist power, the reality is that China is governed by a Communist Party that does not recognize or protect freedoms that we in the West take for granted. It therefore came as no surprise that China has now resorted to hacking into Google e-mail accounts to conduct espionage on its dissidents. To its credit, Google last month responded by threatening to withdraw from China, a market that promises to be its most lucrative.

If in its battle against Chinese authoritarianism Google remains true to the lessons of its young history and its corporate motto it will succeed, first by continuing to earn the respect of those who depend on a free and secure Internet and eventually by teaching China that her capitalistic miracle cannot endure without accepting the risks that freedom entails.

Jack Love, Publisher

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