01/15/2010 07:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Be Evil Vs. Serve the People: Is Google the China of Internet Companies?

This piece first appeared at Motherboard

Determining how people see and use information online while collecting massive amounts of data about those people are traits we associate with totalitarian governments like China, and their sprawling internet control regimes. But amidst this week's clamor of internet rights campaigners and web pundits, are we forgetting that Google basically does the same thing?

Google's fingersnap in China's face this week over Internet censorship and espionage has won praise from all corners of the internet. "Good for Google," proclaimed the Washington Post. The Center for Democracy and Technology said, "No company should be forced to operate under government threat to its core values or to the rights and safety of its users."

But tear away the plaudits and the controversy and the inevitable fears and remember the business interests at stake in this dust up, up pops an underlying irony: both Google and China are after the same thing, just for different reasons. On one side is a government attempting to determine what people see and do on the internet, and collecting their data while they're at it. On the other side is a massive corporation attempting to do that in the service of advertising.

"There's an interesting dynamic between Google and China," Jaron Lanier, the Internet philosopher and author of the new book You Are Not a Gadget, said last night after a talk at the 92nd Street Y. "The Chinese Communist Party would like to be the central place where everybody has to move through to move communication. The reason the Communist Party wants to do that is both for power purposes but also to control what is said. They want to control reality traditionally. Obviously this is a bad program and we'd like them not to succeed in that.

"But on the other hand... Google also wants to be the single node through which everybody has to connect. Their purpose is to sell advertising. But in a sense the style of power they want does have some overlap with what the Chinese want. And so they're in a unique position of wanting to compete in a somewhat similar way."

Lanier, whose "new book issues a loud groan about Web 2.0, calls out Google and Facebook as "lords of the clouds," landlords whose apparent generosity depends on the spread of free user-made content in the service of advertising, to the point where ads and content become one and the same, and trading quality of content for quantity of clicks.

"The basic idea of this contract," he writes, "is that authors, journalists, musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising."

He says the trend of sharing free content pushed by companies like Google can lead us into a kind of "digital Maoism."

"In the long term, the Google approach just doesn't work," he said. "If you're trying to run a whole civilization for the sake of advertising, and you're pulling the means of income away from the intellectuals of that civilization, you don't have something that's sustainable."

Into the Googleplex
Google's commitment to user privacy has been a subject of controversy before, even if this time Google appears to be in the right. But beyond the accusations against China, one argument is asking Google to take another good look in the mirror.

If the company didn't maintain such a giant storehouse of user data, this hack attack would be hardly as worrisome. Some are speculating, that Google's certainty about the Chinese threat and its righteous about-face on censorship may be a melodramatic smokescreen for something they're not telling us: most seriously, that Google may have engineered its servers to help Beijing keep special tabs on Chinese internet use.

In any case, as Ed Morozov noted, the best advice for the future may have come from Eric Schmidt, Google's own CEO, in an interview with CNBC last month: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

Crowd Control -- Or Cloud Control?
In the grand scheme and on the super web, what's worse? The People's Republic of China going after rights activists and freedom-seekers using a supreme army of hackers firing from the ramparts of the Great Firewall, against the protestations and rancor of the world? Or the World's Greatest Company's cloud control, tracking nearly everything we make and do for the sake of selling ads, at the risk of all kinds of unknown violations of our privacy, while everyone mostly looks the other way, absorbed as we are by the newest youtube meme?

I used to live in China, and I expected that at least some of my online communications would be subject to surveillance. But it doesn't matter where in the world I live now. I live in the Google cloud. If China's hackers don't get to my data (and they still can), it's all there, in Google's hands.

Whether activists' emails are getting hacked or our identities and behavior are being tracked, Google still comes out looking like the saintiest and smartest of companies, living up to its widely celebrated code of "Don't be Evil."

So far, Google seems to be largely living up to that motto. But the self command not to be evil also hints at the potential to be the exact opposite. In a way, it almost sounds like the corporate version of "Serve the People." That's the Communist Party's most famous motto, emblazoned next to Mao's portrait, overlooking China's great physical precursor to the web, the dubious public commons of Tiananmen Square.