Google rules
Today Google announced that it would no longer be censoring its search services in China. Rebecca MacKinnon talks to Google's David Drummond about privacy, censorship and China, providing a valuable insight into Google's thinking
22 Mar 10

Today David Drummond announced on behalf of Google that it would no longer be censoring its search services in China. As a result, Chinese users are now being redirected to Google’s servers in Hong Kong. The following interviews between Drummond and Rebecca MacKinnon were conducted prior to the announcement, they give a much needed insight into Google’s thinking

Ever since Google
entered China in 2006 and launched a censored Chinese search engine,, the company has come under fire from human rights groups and free speech activists for helping to legitimise the Chinese government’s censorship policies. Staffers say that Google’s decision to comply with Chinese censorship in order to enter China’s fast-growing and potentially lucrative market was made only after heated internal debates over the ethical pros and cons.

In January 2006, at the time of’s launch, senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin explained that his company was trying to remain true to the company mantra, ‘don’t be evil’. He acknowledged that censoring’s search results ‘clearly compromises our mission’, but he argued that ‘failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population, however, does so far more severely’. McLaughlin also made clear that while Google was going into China with censored search, it would be keeping other services like Gmail and blogspot out of China in order to avoid making further compromises on user privacy and freedom of expression.

On 15 December 2009, I interviewed David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president, corporate development and chief legal officer, at the company’s idyllic campus-like headquarters known as the ‘Googleplex’ in Mountain View, California. By bizarre coincidence, at the same time a massive, highly sophisticated attack was launched from China against Google’s systems. The attackers honed in on Gmail and, even more specifically, the accounts of human rights activists who work on China issues. The attack lasted into early January. On 12 January, David Drummond announced on the official Google Policy Blog that his company was rethinking its business in China:

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered – combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web – have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google. cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognise that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

Soon after the announcement, I emailed David Drummond some follow-up questions. As this issue went to press [in March], the fallout over Google’s public stand against Chinese censorship and attacks aimed at obtaining the private communications of Google’s users continues. Below is an edited transcript: the more recent emailed questions appear on pages 35–36 followed by the December interview.

Our conversation dealt not only with China. At the time of the interview, Drummond and three other Google executives were facing criminal charges in Italy over a video of an autistic child being bullied by classmates: in late February, an Italian judge found Drummond and two of the other executives guilty of privacy invasion. Google intends to appeal the six-month suspended sentences, calling the ruling an attack on ‘the very principles of freedom on which the internet is built’. RM

Rebecca MacKinnon: When we spoke on 15 December, you defended Google’s decision to be in China. Was Google management already starting to reconsider things at that time? Or did it all happen after the most recent round of hacker attacks – which I understand started right around the time we did the interview?

David Drummond: We discovered in December that Google had been the target of an unusually sophisticated cyber attack. When we launched Google. cn in 2006, we believed that the benefits of increased access to information in China for Chinese citizens and a more open internet outweighed the discomfort of agreeing to censor some results. While many of these arguments still hold true, we believe the events of the last year mean we can no longer, in all good conscience, continue to co-operate with the Chinese authorities in filtering results on As we said when we launched in January 2006, ‘We will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.’

Rebecca MacKinnon: To what degree was the decision to re-evaluate Google’s presence in China about the hacker attack [in January], to what degree was it about the worsening censorship environment, and to what degree was it about other – more pragmatic – short and long-term commercial considerations, both in China as well as globally? If you had to apply a percentage weighting to each factor what would it be?

David Drummond: What’s clear is that the environment in which we were operating in terms of an open internet was not improving in China. There have been a number of episodes over the past year that have widely been reported on, including the events surrounding Green Dam content-control software, as well as people in China reporting difficulties in accessing services from Google and other internet companies, as well as the blockage of YouTube. That, combined with these attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered, meant we decided to take a new approach in China. In terms of commercial considerations – we just had our most successful quarter ever in China, but our revenues there are not material to our business, and a large percentage of them are for the export market – that is, Chinese companies advertising to users abroad on our different search engines. This decision was about freedom of expression and an open internet.

Rebecca MacKinnon: A lot of internet users in China were very upset upon first hearing Google might leave. They are worried the Chinese internet will become more closed and balkanised than ever before. What’s your message to them?

David Drummond: We hope to find a solution with the Chinese government. Our Chinese users, partners and employees are very important to us, and we hope we can find a positive outcome. We hope to be able to operate securely in China and in a way that increases access to information for our users in China. We will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. But we recognise that this may mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China. We are committed to protecting the safety and security of our users and products and believe reviewing the feasibility of our business operations in China is the most constructive way to do that.

Rebecca MacKinnon: Do you plan to do more than you’ve done in the past to help Chinese internet users who want to access all the information available on the global internet – not just the sub-set of information their government wants them to see?

David Drummond: We will be meeting with the Chinese government and hope to find a mutually agreeable resolution, so it’s too early to speculate. We are continuing to operate in compliance with Chinese law, and users are also able to access our Chinese-language service on

Rebecca MacKinnon: Are you disappointed that other companies seem disinclined to follow Google’s lead?

David Drummond: We’re not going to comment on specific companies. As we have made clear, at least 20 other large companies from a wide range of businesses – including the internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors – have been similarly targeted. Undemocratic trends (December interview)

Rebecca MacKinnon: Google went through a lot of soul searching in making the decision to go into China – to do it with, but not to move forward with other services like Gmail or blogger. But even so, might one argue that this one compromise started Google down a slippery slope that has made government censorship demands of international internet companies more legitimate? Or has helped to legitimise the compliance with government censorship requests in a global way? And has it also made it more possible for other governments – from Thailand to Turkey to Italy – to expect that Google will comply with demands to take down content, remove results, filter certain content?

David Drummond: No. I don’t think that’s true. No, not at all. We’ve been quite clear that what we did with China was something we did specifically in China because of the specific dynamics that are in that market and in that country, which is a unique country on the face of the earth. There is no question about that. I don’t believe that anything we did in China had any effect on the Thai government’s requests of us, the Turkish government’s requests of us, the Italian government’s requests of us, on any state government’s or state police’s requests on us at all. Nor did what we did in China have any effect on our responses – we have stood firm against lots of requests. We’ve honoured them where we felt they were legitimate, but not where they weren’t. That has not changed, and I don’t think China, and our decision to enter China in the way that we did, had any effect on that. As for other internet companies, I don’t think that what we did should have any impact on them either – it’s up to them how they operate.

Rebecca MacKinnon: When we think about chilling effects on free expression we tend to pick China, we tend to think of Iran, but are you concerned that there are trends in democratic nations that are going to make it harder for Google to be a platform of free expression?

David Drummond: Over the past couple of years, the focus of issues around censorship and free expression has almost moved from non-democratic states like China or Vietnam to emerging democracies or emerging economies. Places like Thailand or Turkey. Now, more and more, we are seeing rumblings in what seem to be democratic countries. Let me give you an example: South Korea, where they passed a law saying you had to identify yourself if you post anything – with your real identity, through the use of a national ID number. It’s hugely chilling to free speech. In France, apparently, there are legislators talking about the same thing now. In Australia, the government has passed this law that allows a blacklist of terms and sites that the government will be empowered to censor. All in the name of filtering and child protection. But when you heard the conservative government down there talking about it, it was clear they had designs perhaps on things that were offensive to Christianity and on harmful content beyond child protection. And that is where it seems to start in the West – protecting children. Everybody agrees child pornography is illegal and all of us should do something about it, but protecting children and then moving forward from there does seem like the slippery slope unless we start turning things around.

Rebecca MacKinnon: So speaking of trying to get it turned around and what Google may be doing on that – I understand that [last December] Google hosted a meeting which was written about on the Google policy blog. Some people from the Citizen Lab in Toronto and the Open Net Initiative came, and basically gave a presentation on the fact that filtering, the blocking of websites at a national level, is growing all over the world, just as you describe. And on this blog, a colleague of yours wrote that given the urgency of this issue [Google is] hoping to bring online free expression to the forefront of policy discussions. So I’m wondering if you could elaborate a bit on how Google plans to do this.

David Drummond: We think that too often the problems of censorship on the internet have been made out to be issues solely between a repressive government and some internet actor or some internet company – and those were the only players you had to be concerned about. The fact of the matter is that it’s a government to government issue. We have been trying to engage governments in the West who care about this issue and get them to start raising this question and use their powers of persuasion on other governments, who perhaps don’t have the free speech traditions, and put pressure on them to maintain an open and free internet. Censorship is bad for business I think that holding governments’ feet to the fire on the principle [of human rights] is something we’d like to do. Now, we also realise that getting governments to implement human rights treaties has not exactly been … there are not a lot of great examples of universal success there. So the other angle we are taking is encouraging western governments – and we have talked to the US government quite a bit about this – to make free expression a trade issue. Because indeed it is, right? If you are talking about the internet – in addition to being a global means of expression it is a global means of trade. For a country like, say, China to use filtering and censorship in order to make it difficult for companies from other places to operate – it seems like that ought to be addressed. When you are talking about multilateral or bilateral trade discussions, just as piracy has been put on the agenda, free expression should be put on the agenda. It ought to be something that is part of the conversation, and western governments whose economies certainly benefit from the hi-tech sector, the internet sector, [should] make this happen.

Rebecca MacKinnon: How much success are you having so far? Particularly with the US government?

David Drummond: The US government has been receptive, there have been a number of conversations with the State Department and the trade representative’s office and I think they’re very interested in this idea. Same with the UK government. A question of transparency

Rebecca MacKinnon: I’m on a list with a whole other bunch of observers – activists – who are working against censorship in various countries. One person on the list actually just complained that they feel that Google is not transparent enough with users about what it is doing in Thailand – the filtering of specific content and so on. It may be clear to Google and to the Thai government – or to insiders – what is going on, but it is completely unclear to users on the ground why certain things are blocked and why certain other things are not blocked. Could Google perhaps be doing a better job at helping users understand what’s going on here?

David Drummond: Probably. Yes, we probably could. And that is something I certainly think we should strive to do better on. I think one of the best ways to fight censorship is to shed light when it happens. I think it is pretty important for us to make clear to our users and to the world when it is that we feel required to remove something.

Rebecca MacKinnon: When you are delisting search results, you have this thing that says some results have been removed, but it doesn’t end up solving the problem. You are helping to create an environment where people’s information environment is manipulated and they don’t know what they don’t know – because it has been delisted they have no way of figuring out what information it is that they are being denied. Of course, that is the point of censorship, and which you continue to enable – even though you’ve got the warning sign, even though people are seeing that they are not getting the results. So, how do you respond to that? How might Google help make it more clear to users, how they can go about discovering what it is they are being deprived of?

David Drummond: is always going to be unfiltered, and so it is up to governments to block that if they want to – some of them do. If we are in a position where we feel we have to comply with the law – I mean it is very easy for an activist just to say, ‘You shouldn’t be there’, but the fact of the matter is it’s important for us to be in some of these countries. We are in a position where we are trying to deliver internet services and tools to people which change their lives and make their lives better, and there are times when we can’t do that. We can do that and risk our employees going to jail and risk further blockages and so forth. But you’ve got to decide where it’s just an obvious end run on the law, and then it’s tough for us. Which is why, again, we think a lot more activism should be directed towards getting these governments to change some laws. Especially when you are talking about governments that western governments trade with, have diplomatic relations with. We are not just talking about rogue governments here. And so that was my point earlier, that we should be ratcheting up the pressure on these governments that want to do business with the West, that want help from the West, that want to deal with the West. Focusing on internet companies only, which has tended to be what happens in this debate, or this discussion, I think doesn’t help. There is only so much an internet company can do. The choices are: you stay there, push back, insist that if someone’s going to try and get information from you, or get you to censor something, that they are following a law. And you make sure that you think that the law was legitimate, in the sense that there is some form of democratic process that created it. You go through all of that, with a very, very narrow view for what you are going to do here. You make these calls that sometimes someone’s not going to agree with, but the alternative is: you’re not there at all.

Rebecca MacKinnon: And then people have even less access. I’m going to push a little bit more on that, however, understanding that this is tough, these are tough decisions, and that they are made by people who are trying to do the right thing. Nonetheless, by complying with censorship demands at all, and in the short term enabling people to access your services, which very arguably does those people a lot of good, however, does that also lessen the pressure and lessen the urgency for people to engage in the kind of activism that you are advocating: activism directed against the government to change their policies? Does it make people less urgent about it because they are getting enough of Google? Whereas if you guys just didn’t compromise at all, and got blocked pretty much everywhere, would there be so much anger from so many people that that would actually – in the more medium term – lead to more pressure for governments to change their policies and not to filter?

David Drummond: No, that just doesn’t work, because the predominant mode that we operate in is we push back and we don’t censor, right? And that has led to lots of blockages. And in some cases blocks have caused internet users to hue and cry and in some countries caused governments to lift blocks – certainly that has happened. But look, China is what we are really talking about here. And I think it is a nice theoretical point to make. But if [we’re talking about] the realities of providing internet services on the ground to people and what they actually get out of them, I think that practically speaking it is a better course to try to navigate it as best you can. Keeping it private

Rebecca MacKinnon: [Google chief executive] Eric Schmidt of course created a lot of uproar [at the end of last year] with his comments that ‘If you have something you don’t want anyone to know then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place’, and people felt that this is a bit dismissive about privacy. What would you have to say to them to reassure them that Google takes their privacy seriously?

David Drummond: Well, we’ll say what we always say – which is that we lead the industry in the things that we do to protect people’s privacy. I defy you to point to an instance in which we have damaged someone’s privacy or we’ve caused harm because of the way we operate with information. If you look at the way we built our products and the things we say about that shows that there is a strong commitment there. We have to. If we didn’t we really wouldn’t have much of a business. If users truly believed that we weren’t protecting their privacy they wouldn’t use the services, because they don’t have to. The power of Google

Rebecca MacKinnon: Despite what you say about Google having all the best intentions on privacy and really working on it, Google has a reputation problem in that there is a public perception that Google has too much power, has too much of our information.

David Drummond: Some people have that perception, but I’d say that millions and millions of our users don’t.

Rebecca MacKinnon: Different people have different perceptions. But we all depend on Google’s products for a lot of things. This is in part because the products are very good – I’m a Gmail user and so on. But at the same time you do have this huge responsibility and – of course – Google has the mantra ‘don’t be evil’, and you are a member of Global Network Initiative [forum of NGOs and industry advancing freedom of expression in technology]. You are doing various things to try and prove to users that ‘Look, we really do have your best interests in mind.’ Yet there are still a lot of people who don’t buy that necessarily. Even though they might still be using Google products, just because they are so ubiquitous. Google is in uncharted territory, in so many different ways, in our society today, and Google is part of this layer that is being built – information, web, telecommunication services, especially now you guys are getting into DNS and phones. You are building this layer upon which we depend for our personal lives and our business, our politics, everything. While your intentions may be honourable, it turns into a whole issue of governance, really, in that this is not just a product or just even a service – it is a place. And so, do you need to start treating your users almost more like citizens of the place rather than as users or customers? In order to gain people’s trust, in terms of how you make decisions, in terms of how you’re approaching and shaping this layer upon which we are increasingly dependent, does there need to be a new kind of thinking?

David Drummond: We do actually do that because people vote with their feet when they use our services. They don’t have to. I would quarrel with the premise that somehow Google services are the only services out there that people are using.

Rebecca MacKinnon: I’m not saying they are the only ones.

David Drummond: People use them because they work pretty well, and they don’t think we are doing nefarious things with such information as they give us. I think we do have a responsibility – we carry it out. The question you have to ask yourself is: should a company like Google not innovate because of some of these concerns that have never come into play, that have never happened? And should you stop innovating, and stop doing things that users are going to really like? So in other words, if you look at things like intraspace advertising, or something like that, you say: well, you can create really useful apps, that are a lot better than apps that people see now, right? And advertisers find it really useful, and users too, because advertising is a form of information on what someone might want in a search query. An ad might even be better information than some editorial or organic kind of information. So, should you not do it? Or should you do it in a way that tries to build in some protection, tries to build in transparency and tells people what is going on. That is what we try to do. Too many of the criticisms seem to not try to strike the balance. We are all for putting our heads together with other people and rolling up our sleeves and figuring out how we create some pretty good balances, so we don’t stop innovation and create things that work really well for people, but still protect privacy. So people sense that bad things are not going to happen. We recognise that because we have got bigger and we have influence, and lots of people use our services and like using our services, that there are concerns about what we might do if we wanted to do bad things.

Rebecca MacKinnon: I get everything you are saying. Yet it seems that Google’s default is still a bit in the direction of: ‘Trust us, we’re good people, we’re working in your interests.’

David Drummond: That is correct.

Rebecca MacKinnon: And the question is: does that work sufficiently? What are the safeguards in place to make sure that Google’s power is not abused? And, of course, in American democracy we’ve put safeguards in place. We kind of assume that human nature is corruptible. Is Google doing enough to assume that human nature is corruptible?

David Drummond: I think we do a lot, we build things into our products that we are not required to. I think we often go above and beyond – and spend a lot of time on the privacy implications of our products and how users are affected by our products and so forth. We’re not against rules. Regulation of services likes ours exists – and exists for very good reasons. We are not opposed to privacy laws: they are very important. We follow them and we do things where we don’t even have to. Intraspace advertising: there is no law that dictates we did what we did, but we did it anyway. We often go above and beyond. In some cases legislators are grappling with how [the internet] works and whether things ought to be changed. We are a part of all of these conversations, and for a lot of these conversations it makes sense for us to be a part of them. But again, these are conversations that need to be had in terms of looking at the entire industry and looking at how it ought to develop from a current public policy standpoint, as opposed to one company that should be doing X, Y and Z. It should be what everybody should be doing, right?

This article appears in the new issue of Index on Censorship, out Wednesday

Rebecca MacKinnon is a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. A former China-based journalist and academic, she is currently writing a book about the future of freedom in the internet age. She is co-founder of Global Voices Online, a non-profit citizen media network whose many corporate and philanthropic funders include Google. Along with Google, she is also a participant in the Global Network Initiative.