Google Vs China – lessons for Ethiopia

By Yilma Bekele

Google is at war with the Peoples Republic of China. Google is a worthy adversary. If I was a betting person I will put all my money on Google. There is no question Google will win. The Peoples Republic is playing the old game of bullying. Too bad for the Chinese those days are gone. It is a new age, a new game and winning comes from using your smarts not your brute force.

Google choose ‘Don’t be evil’ as the company motto. It looks like Google measured the company’s venture in China and the scale tipped towards evil. Google decided evil is not the way forward.

Google is an Internet search company located a few miles from where I live. It has been named as the best place to work in Fortune magazines survey. It is a forward-looking progressive company mindful of its social responsibility. There are plenty of smart Ethiopians working for Google. In fact my friend Tesh might join Google the next few days. We are all happy and proud.

Google entered the Chinese market in 2006. agreed to purge its search results of banned topics such as Tiananmen, Tibet and other issues deemed sensitive by the communist government. Most civil right activists were not happy. Google felt having some access was better than no access. What Google CEO Eric Schmidt said was very memorable ‘we actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil’ he opined.

As is the case with most incompatible marriages the Google –China union is showing cracks. Google is not happy with the sophisticated cyber attacks that are originating from China. The hackers are trying to penetrate computer security systems and steal corporate data and software source codes. Google is forced to revise its earlier decision to play dead and accommodate a repressive system.

According to David Drummond, chief legal officer of Google ‘we have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, 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.

What lesson can we learn from Google’s encounter with an evil system and its response to stop such abuse? I believe Google is following the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Google is practicing the art of peaceful resistance to challenge a formidable looking but at the same time a weak opponent. A paper tiger; to borrow Mao’s phrase. Google can still serve its Chinese customers from outside. Software sophistication has come a long way. The average Chinese can use proxy servers and virtual networks to go around the ‘great Chinese firewall’. Google built its reputation by the quality of its superior search engine. Uncensored Google can beat any competition suffering under the yoke of state supervision. Thus Google felt evil cannot be accommodated. Google tried but found out compromise with dictatorship was a dead end street. Google choose not to participate in a rigged game.

We in Ethiopia are faced with the same situation. We have an opponent that is not willing to practice the art of give and take. Compromise is foreign to our TPLF bosses. Contempt to all others has become second nature to the tribal regime. Just as Google tried with China, the Ethiopian people have tried to accommodate the fears and worries of the minority based government. Time and time again the hand stretched palms up for peace and harmony have been chopped off. Peace is preferable to war, negotiation is superior to confrontation and compromise is more civilized than take it or leave attitude but all are a two way street. It takes the goodwill of both parties in a conflict to come to an understanding.

Google decided playing by the Communist party’s rule is more ruinous than not playing. We in Ethiopia should sit down and weigh the cost of further humiliation at the hands of a few delusional cadres as opposed to saying enough and charting a new path. The harm to our country and to ourselves is greater in the long run than the make believe peace we have conjured up in our head.

Google could have waited out the Chinese politburo. Google could have said ‘we will take this little compromise and hope for more.’ Google knew the longer its patience the more belligerent the demands get. Google said enough is enough. ጉግል በቃ አለ፣እርሶስ ምን ይላሉ?

There are some in Ethiopia that are trying to outlive evil. They talk about the high cost of confrontation. They preach about the virtue of patience. Then they try to raise alarm about the weakness of the opposition. They totally agree about the unfairness of the system but qualify their response by the impossibility of victory. It is true that no one goes to war to lose, but on the other hand when a war is declared by an enemy the only option is to do ones best to win. Rolling over dead is not a winning strategy.
The Chinese Government gave Google the license to operate. But it was a qualified license. Google tried its best to serve its customers with all the restrictions placed on it. It tried to make the best of a difficult situation. Facilitating the open exchange of information is Google’s business. The Chinese government was trying to muzzle that. Google found out you can’t serve two masters at the same time. It is either the Chinese people or the Chinese government.

It sounds like a familiar situation for us Ethiopians. The tribal regime allows formation of political party’s. It sets date and time for elections. Unfortunately there is a big but. You can register your party but you can’t campaign. You can stand for elections but your leaders will be jailed. You can sit and talk in a closed room but you cannot be quoted. It is ok to have election supervisors but they will be appointed by the regime. It is like entering a boxing ring with both hands tied behind your back and the referee is the mother of your opponent.

So Google is in the process of redefining its business contract with the Chinese government. It is willing to abandon working within the system and try its chances from outside China. It looks like Google made the change of course decision without looking at the other actors on the Chinese stage. Yahoo is still there. MSN is staying put. It really don’t matter. Google’s stand is based on its corporate principle of ‘Don’t do evil.’

We Ethiopians always fret about the opinion and stand of others. We shift responsibility and accountability unto others. We avoid answering to our conscience and try to find excuse for our deliberately vague outlook. The minority regime is beating the drums of elections. All the preparations for coronations are in place. The press has been muzzled, opposition leaders are put in jail, exiled, killed or co-opted, the law has been amended to TPLF’s specifications, the country is flooded with cadres bullying the population and the foreign Diplomats are stepping over each other preaching the wonderful art of compromise. The ducks are all lined up!

Be like Google and say no to unfair competition. Dare to say no to humiliation.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])