Sergey Brin on Google's China decision

Posted by: Emily McManus

TED BLOG EXCLUSIVE: Onstage at TED2010, TED curator Chris Anderson interviews Google’s Sergey Brin about the company’s recent statement on China. (Recorded at TED2010, in Long Beach, California, February 2010. Duration: 8:24.)

Read the full transcript after the jump >>CA: What happened?

SB: Our story somewhat parallels what Shyam just told you all about. We initially began investigating a security incident at Google. You know, we have security investigations from time to time, it’s not such an unusual thing, but we quickly discovered that this was a very sophisticated adversary. And furthermore, the more troubling thing to me is that we discovered the motivation, which we believed to be to gain access to Gmail accounts, in particular for Chinese human rights activists. Upon further investigation, we discovered that the same attack had been used against dozens of other companies, and we’ve been contacting them, at that point on and ever since. And since we were now looking at this whole question, we started to understand that broadly even far less sophisticated means had been used, for example the kind of things that Shyam mentioned, spearfishing and whatnot, had been used against human rights activists with respect to their Gmail accounts.

CA: In the way that this has been described, there’s suspicion cast that this is actually work authorized by the Chinese government. Did you have, apart from an assumption about motivation, did you have any actual evidence as to who was behind it?

SB: I don’t actually think the question of whether this was the Chinese government or not is all that important. I know that seems strange. The Chinese government has tens of millions of people in it, and if you look at the associated army and whatnot it’s even larger. It’s larger than most countries by far. So even if there were a Chinese government agent behind this, it might represent a fragment of policy, as it were. There are many people there, and they have different views.

If you look at when we entered China with our Chinese operation in 2006, I actually feel like things really improved in the subsequent years. And I know there was a lot of controversy surrounding it, when we had to self-censor a fair amount, but we were actually able to censor less and less, and our local competitors there also censored less and less. We from the outside provided notification when the local laws prevented us from showing information, and the local competitors followed suit in that respect. So I feel like our entry made a big difference. But things started going downhill, especially after the Olympics. And there’s been a lot more blocking going on since then. Also our other sites, YouTube and whatnot, have been blocked. And so the situation really took a turn for the worse.

CA: Since that incident, have you now stopped self-censoring results in China, or is it just a statement of intent and you’re involved in negotiation now?

SB: We have made a statement of intent that we intend to stop censoring, and if we can do that within the confines of Chinese law and policy, we’d love to continue Google.cn and all of our operations there. And if we cannot, then we’ll do as much as we can, but we don’t want to run a service that’s politically censored. We’re not talking about porn and gambling, things like that, but really the political stuff.

CA: You’re willing to self-censor the porn and stuff that might be culturally inappropriate?

SB: I think there’s a range of things, and the US also has a set of laws about the variety of kinds of content.

CA: There’s probably some people here who wouldn’t mind you doing that in the US as well. (Laughs) But look, you’ve got a mission to bring information to the world, the light of information. You know, there’s hundreds of millions of people in China on the web. I mean, they’re going to feel completely abandoned — aren’t they? — if you leave?

SB: Well, once again, look: I’m an optimist. I want to find a way to really work within the Chinese system and provide more and better information. So, I think a lot of people think I’m naive, and that may well be true, but I wouldn’t have started a search engine in 1998 if I wasn’t naive in that way.


CA: So, what’s your guess?


CA: I mean, do you think that there’s a real chance the negotiations may be successful, and you find a working relationship and a way of staying?

SB: I mean, I’m not going to put odds on it. I’m always optimistic, and it’s not always … and perhaps we won’t succeed immediately, tomorrow or not, but we will in a year or two.

CA: You know, when this story broke, you got huge credit for, from a lot of people from around the world for your saying this is part of “Don’t be evil.” I mean, there’s a familiar tale out there of young idealists who start something; they really believe in it, they put their ideals on public display: “We’re going to hold to the true way.” And then as a … You become a giant global corporation, all these shareholders and demands on you. You’re inevitably forced to compromise. I mean, really? “Don’t be evil”? Can you really hold onto that? Does it mean anything now?

SB: Perhaps people don’t believe this, but all throughout the discussion of originally entering China in 2006 as we did, and the announcement last month, our focus has really been what’s best for the Chinese people. It’s not been about our particular revenue or profit or whatnot. And I think there are many potential answers there. And it’s really a difficult question. But …

CA: What do you hold inside, Sergey. You know, you’re a multi-billionaire. Doesn’t at some point all the opportunities for you kind of tug away at some of that young, naive idealism?

SB: Look, I hope not. I do think that often companies end up being short-sighted with respect to their decisions, and perhaps they’re motivated by the next particular earnings and whatnot. In particular, actually, as we’ve gone though this investigation, it turns out that a number of companies were aware of certain attacks on their systems, and yet they didn’t come forward, and as a result other companies couldn’t be better prepared. Now, I should give a lot of credit. Some companies have, and I would point you for example to Northrop Grumman, that had a significant intrusion where the details of the … terabytes of data about the F-35 fighter were stolen. That’s recently … That’s public, and that’s in congressional reports and was actually very useful to our investigation. If more companies were to come forward with respect to these sorts of security incidents and issues, I think we would all be safer.

CA: All right, Sergey. So, look: Thank you for Google. Thank you for all you’ve done for TED over the years. I admire you wrestling with this issue. I wish you the wise and right outcome on it. Thank you so much.

SB: Thank you very much.

Comments (22)

  • Pingback: Sergey Brin on Google’s China decision [TED] « Wandering China

  • Junyao Zhao commented on Jun 28 2010

    He can’t give evidence, not confident. Don’t lie to me. There is problem, but not this one.

  • fdafsd fdsaf commented on Apr 25 2010

    while theyre investigating security incidents, they are allowing the nsa to access all google users information, and handing data to the u.s. govt on a silver platter. i suppose for those who try to gain information to palestinian human rights activists just go widely unknown, thanks to google. wheres the protection for iraqi human rights activists accounts? i love how comrade sergei avoided the question when asked if he had any evidence whether or not the cn govt was behind the hacking. his response sounds almost as convincing as the u.s. accusation that iraq had wmd. in fact, im starting to see a pattern at how american conclusions dont generally require any evidence. with that said though, i applaud their wild imagination. things started going downhill particularly when the chinese did not find google appealing at all, instead choosing baidu instead. this explains why google only had about 30% of the market share. maybe google pulled out because it was simply not a popular service.

  • Qianzhu Luo commented on Mar 26 2010

    I want to see the first part of this interview. But I can’t find it..

  • angel vevento commented on Mar 6 2010

    it is very serious topic for Chinese people . Chinese government think about it .

  • ed whyman commented on Mar 3 2010

  • Ryan Brogan commented on Feb 27 2010

    This should lead to many conversations around applied ethics and morality at global corporations. We all love Google and for good reason. Optimism in this day and age is critical.

    Sidebar: I was on a conference call and a googler friend of mine passed me a note to stop saying, “at the end of the day”. Larry should text Sergei regarding overuse of “what not”.

  • Martin Eliasek commented on Feb 25 2010

    I think that in the future, wars will be fought for information – just like this. Things like these will be considered ordinary, conventional attacks.

  • Shahzad Afzal commented on Feb 25 2010

    Very informative it shows that was a very tough decision that Google made about China. But these attacks reason could be done by any one any one then why Google asked about Chines government? Can any government do thing like this? I don’t think so.

  • Craig McLaughlan commented on Feb 25 2010

    It’s easy to criticise Google but ultimately they do great work, most of it below the radar.

  • Jenna Mezrahid commented on Feb 25 2010

    I love the “thank you for Google” remark at the end, yes indeed, thank you for google.

    • Erik Joule commented on Feb 25 2010

      Stuart, you are indeed correct Google, like very few is able to blend business as a force of economic wealth and one which can bring social justice to paraphrase Walter Hass. As this economy transforms into a much more well integrated 360 degree balance where profits, principles, the environment, education are all integrated we can hope that Wall street values intrinsic values as much as extrinsic ones. Sergey continues not only gives me hope but his actions materialize it.

  • Jo Ann Thomas commented on Feb 25 2010

    Impressive and “whatnot.”

  • Stuart Baran commented on Feb 24 2010

    For an alternate perspective on how Google can fulfill it’s mission while serving the interests of it’s shareholders I humbly submit the following observations:

    Google stated it’s mission publicly: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. There’s no reference to financial aspiration in this statement. Investors have the right to expect Google to work toward the achievement of it’s stated mission. To compromise it’s mission for the sake of profit would be a breach of it’s responsibility to is shareholders.

    The problem is that there’s an assumption that shareholders invested in Google exclusively for profit. I think this is almost entirely correct. If so, they invested in a firm who’s goals are not aligned with their own. As partial owners, they could potentially rally to realign their firms priorities, but that hasn’t happened. A valid argument can be made that Google owes its shareholder an earnest pursuit of it’s stated goals.

  • John K. Bates commented on Feb 24 2010

    This was a very interesting discussion. I think that Google really does come from a good place. I just love the Google guys. Sergey is a brilliant dude. I remember the first time they were at the Webby Awards way back. Go guys! :) He’s also wearing Vibram Fivefingers!

  • Tyler Gibson commented on Feb 24 2010

    How about we create a world where all information is free to everyone everywhere because there is no corruption or “evil”. Join the movement, change the world >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> http://www.zday2010.org.

  • Ken Simpson commented on Feb 24 2010

    Best 8 minutes of my day. Glad to know that Google is still fighting to openly distribute the information on human rights abuses to the Chinese people.

  • Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán commented on Feb 24 2010

    It was a great interview, keeping in mind the short time and the deep of the story.
    “Don’t be evil” sounds idealistic, but it ‘s coherent with some key elements of the google concept: transparent sharing of information. “Don’t be evil” doesn’t meant that google wants to save the world, it only means that google wants to keep sharing information in transparent and honest ways, as they have been doing since the beginning. Google is really coherent with that, and it’s great if they want to keep defending that freedom and transparency in information.

  • Marc Huot commented on Feb 24 2010

    Sergey really didn’t speak to Chris’ last question: How can Google continue to operate with a “Don’t be evil” mantra when Search in China represents a huge potential market share for them to pursue?

  • jack abbott commented on Feb 24 2010

    Sergey pretty much blew my mind. I don’t know what I expected, and I’m probably one of very few who had never seen/heard him. I think it’s fabulous IF he’s really doing the things he says he is to both protect their rights and those who want access to what he provides. You can’t mess with the Chinese Government and win and nobody really wins if google gets blown out. Chris did a fab job in the interview, Kara and Walt have nothing on him! That would have been a great question to ask because bottom line, it’s going to impact the bottom line and this sure makes it seem as though they are doing more “filtering” then they’re willing to fess up to.

  • Chris Anderson commented on Feb 24 2010

    Incredibly tough issue to deal with. If I’d had more time, I’d have asked Sergey about this: Here’s an image search on Google China for “Tiananmen Square” http://bit.ly/ao6MlP And the same search in the US http://bit.ly/bX6qgp Is the difference self-censorship? (If so, it’s incomplete.) Or just that their search algorithm naturally finds fewer links on Chinese websites to controversial pictures.

    I do not envy him this call and appreciated him airing the issue at TED.