Chronic China digital : Google, Apple, and the ethical dilemma

Following the third season of the Chronicles of digital China ! Between personal anecdotes and analysis of the facts of society, Mathieu Fouquet continues his exploration of technological practices chinese definitely foreign.

On September 12, 2000, a small new pointed shyly at his nose on the market is still nascent search engine chinese. Barely a year after the establishment of Baidu (the 18 January of the same year), Google began to offer its services to millions more people through a traditional chinese version and simplified its home page

And seen the effectiveness of Baidu, a little competition never hurts. For example, typing in “Fcae” returns no relevant results. A scandal in 2019.

This was only a first step, however. The site suffered so many delays and occasional hangs. It would take a further six years before the firm of Mountain View is not offering a version that is completely chinese in its product history. Chinese, and therefore censored.

Launched in 2006, promised a better experience for the price of a bid almost total in Beijing. Google, whose mission is self-proclaimed is ” [to]organize the information on a global scale in order to make them accessible and useful to all “, and whose motto was until recently ” Don’t be evil “, was then in the situation a little envious of the duty to submit results to be incomplete in some of its users.

The period from 2006 to 2009, during which Google has made its search engine in the chinese territory, was rich in controversy to american society. At its arrival on the local market, this last attempt also, using a press, to cut the grass under the feet of critics (our translation) :

“Well that removing some of the research results contradict the mission of Google, does not provide any result (or a user experience that’s deeply degraded) it contradicts even more. “

In other words, it is better to accept the compromise of censorship is all-pervasive as to prevent chinese users access to the best search engine in the world. Obviously, from the principal, such a quote may make you smile. Google yielded willingly to a authoritarian regime to generate additional income, one might notice with cynicism. And this would not be wrong.

This would not be fundamentally different from the situation in which Apple finds itself today. Of course, remove some applications from the App Store in chinese, this is not quite as clear any reference to the Tiananmen of the results of an internet search. Apple would never go that far. Oops.

As we recalled in our last column, operate in China is a puzzle standing for a foreign company. Not only because it is necessary to know how to read the local market, but also because the government may attempt at any time to interfere in the functioning of your products. This is the price to pay, a price that many consider too high, in particular from an ethical point of view.

In 2010, the bill finally becomes too heavy for Google : as a result of the’Operation Aurora, a cyber attack on chinese large-scale attacks including some Gmail accounts sensitive, the american company decided to stop censoring search results.

In other words, to abandon the chinese market and go to the other side of the Great Firewall.

Today, typing ””, automatically redirects to, its equivalent in hong kong.

… Or almost. It remains today as the versions in hong kong and taiwanese on the site, non-censored, of course, but are inaccessible from the mainland without a VPN. At least we can do in depth research on Winnie the pooh.

In addition, contrary to what one might think, Google services, not all have perished in the great deadlock of 2010. This is particularly the case of Google Maps, which is always accessible from China at the present time.

France on Google Maps from China and without a VPN. Perfectly useless ? Maybe.

What is the importance of, you might say, while Baidu Maps and its competitors already dominate the market and that the chinese maps from Google are also comically obsolete ?

At the risk of paraphrasing the press release of Google above : having more choices is always better to have less of a choice. Let’s imagine that 99 % of the population mocks to be able to use Google Maps, which is probably close to the reality : there would be all the same 1 % of users that would benefit from this situation. On the scale of a country as densely populated, this is not insignificant.

In addition, the presence of foreign services in China has often positive effects are difficult to quantify. This is only an anecdote, of course, but Google Maps me for example, has been very useful when I had to teach to the student(s)a little geography, French. With Baidu, which does not display the French names across the country, the effect would not have been the same.

Can we learn the names of cities without Google Maps ? Of course. But the existence of foreign services in China generates profits incalculable, and not only financial. They open a small door in the Wall and provide a point of contact as between different cultures, it was for something as minor as legends on a map of the world.

France on Baidu Maps. Not quite the same result.

Today, there is no longer any doubt that a powerful technology ecosystem has developed in the middle kingdom, despite (or because of) the censorship and the monitoring of mass, and outside of the sphere of influence of the Silicon Valley. Amazon, Google and Apple, are they irreplaceable ? Taobao, Baidu and Huawei intend to prove that not, and have already more or less done on the chinese market.

Because of this, it can be tempting to declare the end of the game. The chinese companies can best meet the needs of the Chinese and lower morally in meeting the requirements of the government, and it is not desirable that Apple and Google are getting into the game of Beijing. Leave the country, it is protest loudly against its policies.

In all honesty, it is a speech that I thought were perfectly reasonable when I was living in France and I doubt more since I live in China. Every time someone urges a society to no longer do business in the country, I can’t help but be struck by his lack of empathy towards one billion people. China is not only an abstract entity or a political system : it is also a population. If, tomorrow, Apple folded over bag in France to protest against a new measure of the government Macron, it is likely that a few lives would be disrupted. Those of the employees of the Apple Store, to begin with.

When a foreign company leaves China, there are inevitably profound ramifications. There’s always the option of using a VPN to circumvent blocked, yes, but this is only a patch binding, which mitige the problem. Everyone does not have a subscription to a VPN of quality, to begin with, and all situations do not lend themselves to its use. The proof is that, during the writing of this article, I have had to on numerous occasions to perform searches with Bing. Not by choice, but because it is one of the few foreign search engines that are still operating in China.

Do not spit not in the soup : Bing succeeds brilliantly the test ” Fcae “, so it is an excellent search engine.

The western companies that decide to establish themselves in China (and therefore to cooperate with chinese law, that it is ethical or not) often break sugar on the back. It is inevitable, and the fact that companies like Google often have questionable practices does not help their position. I find myself often to nod the head when I hear their justifications (motivated by money). It is better to be present in the country as absent, even if this presence has a cost. Because to be absent, it is impoverish or more complex visibly — and subtly — the life of a countless number of people (mine including, it’s useless to hide).

So, should we just accept it without reserve ? Of course not, and this tolerance limit is difficult to define. However, we underline the fact that the chinese government does not need the cooperation of foreign companies. No matter who installs or who goes, there will always be the national companies. And if the chinese market is totally dominated by these actors, native speakers, who are otherwise more at the mercy of the government than Apple and Google (who are not in a position of strength, but who can at least protest), the control of Beijing will be (more) absolute. A point to consider when pushing a society to leave China.

Last summer, rumors were state of a certain ” Project Dragonfly “, a new search engine censored, which would allow Google to make its grand return to the chinese market, almost a decade after it folded luggage. A few months later, after internal tensions, it seemed that the project was already cancelled. And then, last march, the rumor came back to life. Obviously, the folder is tricky and the right answer is not clearly apparent. May be that we need to continue to try.

You can find all the past columns on MacGeneration and in the form of a digital book for sale on Apple’s Books to 4.99 €. The book Chronicles China digital includes the first two seasons, with two chapters exclusive.