Google’s Holiday Gift To China

There are only three shopping days remaining until Christmas Eve! Have you purchased and wrapped all of the presents on your Gift List?

Some of us, of course, confront more difficult challenges than others in choosing appropriate gifts for recipients. But imagine how tough it must be to select a gift for the world’s largest communist nation!

In a sense, that’s exactly what Google may have delivered for the government of China. On December 13th, the internet services giant announced that it will open a center for basic Artificial Intelligence research in Beijing.

So why is this a gift? Because Google’s services, like Facebook’s, are banned in China. And on December 18th, just five days after Google’s announcement, a Chinese official confirmed the ban by declaring:

That’s a question maybe in many people’s minds, why Google, why Facebook are not yet working and operating in China. If they want to come back, we welcome (them). The condition is that they have to abide by Chinese law and regulations. That is the bottom line. And also that they would not do any harm to Chinese national security and national consumers’ interests.

It’s possible, of course, that Google’s decision will help it gain access to the Chinese market in 2018. If that occurs, its AI Center may be perceived in retrospect as a profitable investment in a new business market.

But what if the Chinese government doesn’t open its market to Google next year? Perhaps the center’s Chinese technology specialists will provide valuable developmental expertise to the American firm. And perhaps those same specialists will learn just as much from Google.

At the moment, though, Google has made a commitment to open an advanced research center in a nation that bans its services from its entire domestic economy. Unless Google’s commitment eventually “pays off” in some substantive manner, it isn’t very difficult to characterize its decision as a gift.

Google’s Behavioral Duality

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

So began the timeless Charles Dickens classic A Tale Of Two Cities. His “times,” of course, referred to an era of revolutionary upheaval in the city of Paris. But what was he trying to say? And why did he place a pair of ostensibly contradictory phrases side-by-side in a single opening sentence?

Dickens was referring to the duality of behavior that existed in Paris during the period of time between its historic era of monarchy and its current era of democracy. The city itself was enjoying its best of times in many respects, and yet was also suffering through its worst of times.

Dickens was indeed correct in noting that entire cities can behave in ways that are simultaneously good (or “best”) and bad (or “worst”). But does this also hold true for corporations?

The Best Of Firms?

Take Google, for instance. In many ways, it is very difficult to feel anything but admiration for many of its corporate priorities and activities. After all, it’s a company that believes that “democracy on the web works,” and that “you can make money without doing evil.” How can any one argue with such declarations?

Its Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, is traveling to places like North Korea and Myanmar to participate in attempts to open their closed societies to global culture and commerce. And Google engineers have developed a prototype of an automobile that drives itself, focusing initially on blind individuals who are trapped in their homes, unable to independently access transportation options to travel to supermarkets, medical offices, and other venues of daily living.

When Cornell University wanted to open a technology program in New York City before its new campus could be constructed on Roosevelt Island, Google offered free use of its own facilities in the Big Apple, an offer that Cornell eagerly accepted. And when the firm decided that the Chinese government was interfering with its ability to support its own democratic principles, it simply withdrew from the world’s largest consumer market.

The Worst Of Firms?

At the very same time that Google has been engaging in such exemplary activities, it has also been facing (and it continues to face) a wide array of criticism over privacy considerations. Until recently, its most egregious activity involved what appeared to be a deliberate decision to circumvent the privacy settings on Apple’s Safari browser in order to collect personal usage information from mobile web surfers.

And just last week, the firm agreed to pay a fine and institute a wide array of corrective policies and procedures in response to a Google Maps data gathering fiasco. Apparently, when Google sent camera vans down thousands of miles of public streets to collect visual images for its mapping service, it programmed the vehicles to collect private email information and other personal data that were being transmitted over wi-fi systems.

Furthermore, even small decisions by the global firm can generate bitter denouncements in the technology community. Recently, for instance, it announced that it will soon be discontinuing its Google Reader service, a web based function that helps users keep track of new postings by blogs and other types of web pages. Although the service never enjoyed tremendous popularity with the public, it did manage to earn the support of  a small but enthusiastic user group that was angered by the firm’s discontinuation decision.

Both, And Neither

So some aspects of Google’s organizational behavior may lead us to conclude that it is indeed “the best of firms.” But when we focus on different aspects of its behavior, we may instead conclude that it is “the worst of firms.” Can both be true at the same time?

In a way, yes … and in a way, no. Certainly, Charles Dickens might opine that such duality of behavior is indeed possible in great corporations, as well as in great cities. But others may argue that all corporations, large and small, enjoy moments of greatness and suffer through moments of awfulness. They may assert that global firms simply display more noticeable extremes of “best” and “worst” behavior because they are, in fact, extremely large and noticeable organizations.

So the next time you feel compelled to excoriate Google over some condemnable activity or decision, you may wish to remind yourself of all of the commendable activities and decisions that they have performed and made over the years. Conversely, when you feel compelled to idolize the firm for some benevolent and magnanimous activity, you may wish to remind yourself of their questionable decisions as well.

Indeed, like all corporations, and like all human beings, Google can simultaneously behave as if it is both “the best of firms” and “the worst of firms.” Does this make the firm unique? Not at all; instead, it is simply behaving as we all do.