Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Brin shaped Google's China stand

* The Wall Street Journal

* MARCH 12, 2010

Soviet-Born Brin Has Shaped Google's Stand on China


As a boy growing up in the Soviet Union, Sergey Brin witnessed the consequences of censorship. Now the Google Inc. co-founder is drawing on that experience in shaping the company's showdown with the Chinese government.

Mr. Brin has long been Google's moral compass on China-related issues, say people familiar with the matter. He expressed the greatest concern among decision makers, they say, about the compromises Google made when it launched its Chinese-language search engine, Google.cn, in 2006. He is now the guiding force behind Google's decision to stop filtering search results in China, say people familiar with the decision.

Google acknowledged that the call to stop filtering—which was announced in January and set off negotiations with Beijing—could lead to its withdrawal from the fast-growing market.

The move is the clearest manifestation yet of a tension that has always existed at Google.

The Internet company, on one hand, is analytical: It built its core search business on algorithms that determine the relevance of Web sites and has tried to apply quantitative analysis to traditionally subjective parts of a business, such as hiring decisions. On the other hand, Mr. Brin and co-founder Larry Page have passionately touted Google's ability to spread democracy through access to information, and adopted the unofficial and now-famous motto, "Don't Be Evil."

"At its best, Google is data-driven with an ethical trump card," said Larry Brilliant, who headed up the company's philanthropic efforts until 2009. Always it was the founders, Messrs. Brin and Page, who could play that card, he added.

Google declined to make Mr. Brin or any other executives available for an interview.

Mr. Brin was born in Moscow in 1973. He emigrated to the United States with his family in 1979, he has said, in part because of anti-Semitism there before the fall of the Soviet Union. He has said in past interviews that the move and its circumstances had a profound impact on his life.

Mr. Brin was asked about the compromises necessary to do business in China during a 2004 interview with Playboy magazine. "There are difficult questions, difficult challenges," he said. "One thing we know is that people can make better decisions with better information," he said, adding that he was aware of cases where finding information through Google's search engine had saved people's lives.

When Google launched its Chinese site, it agreed to filter out results that the Chinese government found objectionable, including some political speech and pornography.

Mr. Brin wasn't completely comfortable with that decision and would sometimes say Google should never have agreed to Beijing's conditions, a person familiar with his thinking said. But his objections were never enough to reverse Google's policy.

"I actually feel like things really improved" in the first years after Google entered China, Mr. Brin said at a technology conference in February. "We were actually able to censor less and less, and our local competitors there also censored less and less."

But following the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, he said, "there's been a lot more blocking going on."

In December, Google detected cyber attacks that it traced to computers in China. It said some of its intellectual property was stolen, adding that it had evidence that attackers were trying to access the accounts of Chinese human-rights activists on Gmail, Google's email service.

Mr. Brin personally supervised Google's subsequent investigation, even moving his office into the building where Google's security team was operating, said a person familiar with the investigation.

The Wall Street Journal reported in January that in debates over how to respond, Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, argued the company could do more good by keeping its search engine in China. Mr. Brin said Google had already taken that approach. and that it could no longer justify giving in to China's requirements to censor search results.

A Silicon Valley executive who knows Mr. Brin said his Soviet upbringing made him particularly opposed to state use of technology to spy on citizens. This person suspects that the apparent attempts to spy on Gmail users may have been as important in Google's reaction as the issue of censorship. "That tripped Sergey," this person said.

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