Google Executive Weighs In On China, Censorship

Melissa Block talks to David Drummond, senior vice president for corporate development, and chief legal officer for Google, about Google's announcement that it would stop censoring its search results in China. Google has said that they recognize the move may lead to shutting down operations in China.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Beijing, Internet users have been leaving bouquets of flowers and notes of support outside the offices of Google. This week, Google threatened to pull out of China and shut down its search engine there after it discovered what it called a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on its network. Specifically, hackers targeted the email accounts of human rights activists. Many other large companies were targeted as well. We are joined by Google's chief legal officer, David Drummond, to talk about what happens next. Mr. Drummond, welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID DRUMMOND (Chief Legal Officer, Google): Well, thanks, Melissa, for having me.

BLOCK: And Google has said it would stop censoring search results in China. Have you actually lifted the filters that you've had on your search engine?

Mr. DRUMMOND: No, we haven't done that yet. What we've said is that going forward, we're going to end that practice. We have asked the government to start some discussions with us about how we can operate an unfiltered search engine in China and failing that, we will have to shut it down, but - or do something else. But as of right now, it's sort of operating as we were until we talk to the government.

BLOCK: Well, it seemed like you got rebuffed from the Chinese government today. They said foreign Internet companies have to follow the law. They didn't seem to be offering any concessions on your demands. So, how does Google respond to that?

Mr. DRUMMOND: Well, we hope that there will be some more conversations. We understand that was an initial response and, you know, at the end of the day, if it's their view that an uncensored search engine - you know, that we can't do that in China, then we will have to do something different, could be shutting the site down.

BLOCK: Just to be clear here, is Google holding the Chinese government directly responsible for the hacking, for these cyber attacks?

Mr. DRUMMOND: No. We don't have definitive evidence, one way or the other, the government was involved. We know that it was a highly sophisticated attack. It was an organized attack and it was politically motivated in the sense that there seemed to be clear targeting of human rights activists who were interested in China.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the whole censorship issue here, because when Google started up in China four years ago, you agreed to censor certain sensitive topics, such as Tiananmen Square, the massacre there, or the Dalai Lama. Looking back, would you say that Google sacrificed principles and essential values of free speech in favor of a business deal, making money in China?

Mr. DRUMMOND: No, I don't think that's accurate. You know, it's never been a big market for us, you know. Even now, it's an immaterial portion of our revenues. I think we wanted to serve the Chinese market and feel that we had a responsibility to do that and there are sort of two different moral arguments you can make, you know. One of them is to say, look, there is censorship and we're not going to have anything to do with it, which was our position for a longtime with China.

And the other one is to say, well, maybe it's better in a place like China, given its scope in the world, its impact in the world, to go there and try to be a force for opening it up and though temporarily you might have to - you might have to do something that you normally don't want to do, perhaps you could be on the side of more openness, by being there and that's the position we took.

BLOCK: But do you think that, that with those initial agreements where you would censor your search engine, did Google send a message to the Chinese government that said basically, look, stepping on free speech and Internet freedom is fine, maybe you contributed to the restrictive environment that you're talking about now?

Mr. DRUMMOND: No, I don't think that's really true. Yeah, I think we've been a bit of a thorn in the government side since we've been there. You know, we've always censored quite a bit less than any of the local competitors. We didn't locate any of our Gmail servers there, for instance. So, it would be impossible for the government to come to us and get information. We operated in a different way and we pushed back at every opportunity.

BLOCK: We were looking - we were sort of fishing around on the Google.cn site today, searching for terms, such as Tiananmen Square massacre, and stories were coming up. One site that did come up was the official site of the Dalai Lama, for example, which was surprising to me that I could have access to that.

Mr. DRUMMOND: Well, it's certainly possible. You know, the Internet is an unruly thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DRUMMOND: And which is one of our points when we - whenever we talk to censors or those who have an interest in censoring content. In other words, it's a difficult thing to do really well, which is good.

BLOCK: Do you have people on Google's staff who are actively filtering information in China?

Mr. DRUMMOND: Well, we - in order to operate the site as we have, there has been, you know, variety of mechanisms to comply with the law there. So, we do have people who work on that.

BLOCK: And you're saying that even with this recent standoff with the Chinese government, everything is working exactly the same, those same people who are filtering sites before are still filtering sites now?

Mr. DRUMMOND: As I said, this is not going to be the - in other words, we will stop doing that. We're going to end the censoring very soon.

BLOCK: Very soon. Can you give some sense of the timetable for that?

Mr. DRUMMOND: Can't give you an exact timetable. But it will be - I expect that this will resolve itself relatively quickly.

BLOCK: David Drummond is the chief legal officer for Google. Mr. Drummond, thank you very much.

Mr. DRUMMOND: Thanks very much for having me, Melissa.

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