Live from TED

Sergey Brin on Google’s China decision

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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.)

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 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.