One of the videos that prompted the ban featured a pair of shoes with the soles pointed towards a picture of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, while the Thai national anthem played in the background.Pointing your feet towards a person is considered an offensive gesture in Thailand. Originally, Google refused to remove the offending content, but today the Financial Times reports that Google and the Thai government have struck a deal:
Thailand's military-installed government has lifted its five-month ban on the video-sharing website YouTube after its owner, Google, agreed to block clips that are deemed "offensive" to the Thai people or violate Thai law, officials said.This is not the first time that YouTube has gotten in to trouble by violating local mores. The WSJ Business Technology blog reminds us that "India, for example, demanded that a video portraying Gandhi as a womanizing gangster be removed last January." The controversy also recalls Google's decision to offer self-censored search results in China, including eliminating content related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, to avoid a ban there last year. The decision spurred protest in the U.S. though it was argued at the time in this New York Times Magazine article and elsewhere that Google's brand of censorship was the lesser of two evils.
Still, with a corporate motto of "Don't be Evil" and claims by the company's founders that their primary motivation is improving the world rather than making money, the latest decision to capitulate to censorship demands will raise eyebrows and contribute to a small but growing Google backlash (featured in this week's Economist) as people become uneasy with privacy concerns as the proportion of information controlled by the company grows.
While these questions are interesting to consider generally, a more immediate lesson for managers is the challenge of doing business in foreign cultures. If you are going to market your product to another culture, or do business with suppliers or partners overseas, you'd better investigate where to point your shoes first.