See No Evil. Hear No Evil. Google No Evil.

There’s no question that Google is now the Internet’s premier search engine. Clean, fast and pop-up free, it has even entered the public vocabulary as a verb: to Google. But Google is known for having a mission beyond just being just a great search engine.

Google’s stated aim is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” A nice statement, but the philosophy link on their Web site goes even further. One of the “ten things Google has found to be true” is: “You can make money without doing evil.” Evil isn’t a word you hear often in corporate America, but Google has made it part of their corporate philosophy to not be evil.

And the thing about Google is that the company actually seems to take this philosophy seriously. Most users of Google know how they have kept their pages clean of ads, especially ads from the alcohol and tobacco industries. A Google user also can be fairly certain that the results he finds are actually results, and not sites that coporations have paid Google to pimp.

Now enter China. Quite obviously, the Chinese government censors information, and with the frightening exchange of ideas on the Internet, it makes sense that they’ve launched a huge campaign to restrict their users from researching certain subjects. The International Herald Tribune mentions that “democracy, Tiananmen, Taiwan, human rights, and Tibet” are just a few of the hundreds of subjects that Chinese censors disallow Internet users in China from accessing.

So far, Internet companies have been jumping over themselves to accommodate this. The most famous of these companies is Yahoo, who helped the Chinese track down Chinese journalist Shi Tao. Shi Tao, who worked for a business daily, was sentenced to 10 years behind bars for sending an anonymous e-mail to foreign news media warning about the possible threat posed by the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen killings. Yahoo provided the tools necessary to track him down, a move that Reporters Without Borders says makes them a “police informant.”

Until recently, Google has stayed out of the fray, and their only link to the Chinese market was a heavily censored version of their engine that often crashed and was remarkably slow. But now Google has released a Chinese language version of their search engine called “Gu Ge” or “Valley Song,” a version that actively censors Web sites that the Chinese government deems inappropriate. The move sent shock waves throughout the Internet community. Doesn’t this interfere with making information universally accessible and useful?

Google says no. The BBC reports that although Google considers removing search results inconsistent with the company’s mission, “providing no information or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information is more inconsistent with our mission.” Google CEO Eric Schmidt even went as far as saying, “I think it’s arrogant for us to walk into a country where we are just beginning to operate and tell that country how to operate.” And to their credit, Google is striving to disclose when its results are censored, and it does not offer blog or e-mail services that it might be forced to turn over to the government.

But Google’s debut in China is a worrying compromise of their central principles. Rebecca MacKinnon, a former foreign correspondent in China now specializing in Internet censorship, put it nicely when she said that, “if these American technology companies have so few moral qualms about giving in to Chinese government demands to hand over Chinese user data or censor Chinese people’s content, can we be sure they won’t do the same thing in response to potentially illegal demands by an overzealous government agency in our own country?” Although Google has so far stood their ground and opposed handing over records to the U.S. government, their choices in China signal a slippery slope.

No one doubts that China is a huge, mostly untapped market for Internet companies. There are more than 100 million people in China with Internet access, yet that is less than 8 percent of the country’s population. Some companies even expect the e-commerce market there to be worth $390.9 billion in 2009, when it’s expected that more people will use the Internet in China than in the United States.

Google’s spokesman stated that defying censorship laws could result in Google News being kept out of China altogether, something that could lose the company millions of dollars of business. “The trade-off,” he explained, is in the “best interests of our users located in China.” Currently, China only accounts for a small portion of Google’s revenues, but with their recent acquisition of a license to allow it to carry local advertising, experts expect that to change quickly. It seems that Google, supposedly the moral and clean Internet search engine, is buckling under the financial gain that China offers.

If Google wants to be known as the “moral” Internet company, if they want to hold true to their “do no evil” motto, then they have to stick to their guns. Google has the power to make a difference in this situation, but they aren’t willing to make the commitment that it would require. They may argue that they have to obey the laws where they operate, but what if those laws required them to discriminate or do other obviously unethical things? They surely wouldn’t stand for it.

Although censoring free speech may not be considered as horrendous as discrimination, Google shouldn’t waver in what is a clear violation of their mission. Otherwise, they’re just the same as all the rest of the search engines.