Friday, March 19, 2010

Is Google Greater than God?

It is difficult for 81 million web-browsing Indians even to imagine a life without Google. Indians, like billions of other web users around the world, are so addicted to Google that it is actually difficult for them to replace the search engine giant in their online expeditions. If John Lennon, who unleashed an uproar by saying, “Beatles are more popular than Jesus”, was alive today, he would have sung ‘Google is Greater than God’. But for the godless Chinese, Google is just a search engine.

Now it’s almost certain that the US Internet giant will shut its Chinese search engine, Though the company has not confirmed its pullout from the world’s largest Internet market, China’s state-controlled official media have reported that it will happen in April. Whether Google will shut its entire China operations or just pull the plug on and let its other operations continue is not yet clear. The search engine is expected to unveil its plans on March 22.

The crisis started two months back when Google threatened to pull out of China, a market of around 400 million web users, accusing Chinese hackers backed by the government of attacking its email system. The US internet giant, which launched to provide censored search services for Chinese users in 2006 said it detected “highly sophisticated” attack on its email services originating from China. These attacks and the Chinese government’s attempts to “limit freedom of speech on Internet” led Google to adopt a “new approach” to the Dragon, the company’s chief legal officer David Drummond wrote on his blog on January 12.

China rejected the allegations, but defended its censoring, saying Google has to obey the rules of the land. The US soon seized the opportunity to score against its global rival and asked Google to refuse “politically motivated” censoring. Rights groups around the world once again deplored the “Great Firewall of China”. Well, what will happen if Google pulls out?

Lose-lose scenario
According to analysts, it would be a lose-lose scenario. "If Google leaves, it`s a lose-lose scenario, instead of Google loses and others gain," Edward Yu, president of Analysys International, a Beijing research firm, told Associated Press. China sans Google will stand increasingly isolated in a rapidly expanding web world. Popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and Google’s Youtube are already banned in China. It’s still unclear how China’s educated, outward looking middle class youth would respond to the disappearance of the “all-loving” Google in their web space.

Google’s withdrawal will also hit the Chinese mobile market, which is highly dependent on the search engine. China Mobile Ltd, the world’s largest telecom service provider with 527 million subscribers, uses Google for mobile search and maps. Google’s android operating system is also popular among mobile phone users in China.

So what will China do? Despite this expected setback, the Chinese authorities appear to be defiant in dealing with Google. The reason, many think, is the (over)confidence that the local search engine, Baidu, would be able to rise up to the occasion if Google leaves. China has developed domestic equivalents of all the major popular internet companies -- Baidu for Google, Taobao for eBay, Renren for Facebook, QQ for instant messaging, games and social networking. The Economist magazine, a severe critic of China’s web censoring policies, admits these companies “are doing well”.

On the other hand, the end of operations in China will lead to a sharp fall in Google’s net revenue. Therefore, according to reports, Google will likely shut only its Chinese search portal and continue other services, leaving some options on the table for a possible future reconciliation. Apart from its search and mobile phone applications, the US firm has two research and development facilities in China and is running a popular music portal.

The Chinese government’s tough stand vis-à-vis Google is also a strong message to other companies operating in the country. If the Communist Party-led government is not ready for an inch of compromise on “sensitive issues” like censoring with a giant like Google, other companies will be thrown out of the mainland even without a negotiation if they avoid Beijing’s diktats. Most of them are more interested in the vast potential of Chinese market than the so-called liberal principles. Google was also not different till January 12, 2010.

Will China survive the departure of Google, the God of the Web World? Well, that could be the most interesting question of coming years.

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