[By Duncan McLeod] Google’s decision to square up to the Chinese government over censorship is extraordinary. It will probably result in the company being forced to pull out of the communist-led country. But if it feels so strongly about it, why did it invest in the first place?
Google took China — and the world — by surprise last week when its chief legal officer, David Drummond, announced in a blog post that it is no longer prepared to censor search results on the Chinese version of its website.
The decision followed what Drummond called a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on its systems. The attackers, he said, were trying to gain access to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
“We are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn and so over the next few weeks will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all,” Drummond said.
China, which routinely blocks access to websites critical of Beijing, has reportedly stepped up censorship in recent months.
Google’s ultimatum to China has the potential to develop into a full-blown diplomatic row, with the US government already saying it supports the company’s decision.
But the response from other technology companies has been muted. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer criticised Google. “I don’t understand how that helps us and I don’t understand how that helps China,” he said.
Microsoft’s Bing search engine is likely to be a significant beneficiary if Google.cn is closed down.
Yahoo, on the other hand, rallied to Google’s defence. But this earned it an angry reaction from China’s Alibaba Group – Yahoo indirectly owns 29% of Alibaba’s business-to-business e-commerce site, Alibaba.com. Alibaba described Yahoo’s defence of Google as “reckless” and called on all companies operating in China to respect that country’s regulations, culture and customs.
Google’s decision has placed the international spotlight firmly on Beijing. Ironically, Google is probably in a stronger position than the US and the UN to pressure China to embrace greater freedoms for its people.
The January 16 edition of The Economist notes the Chinese government is “fearful that [Google’s] public stand against censorship will be celebrated by many Chinese Internet users”. Tellingly, Chinese news reports on the subject failed to explain the reasons for Google’s decision.
As China’s people become better educated and wealthier, it’s going to become more difficult for their government to keep them in the dark. Unless Beijing wants to surrender the economic progress China has made in recent years, it will eventually have to allow greater freedoms for its citizens, especially freedom of speech.
No repressive regime can survive in an environment where information flows freely.
One hopes Google’s standoff with China will result in progress in that country. But will the government tolerate an uncensored search engine? That seems unlikely.
Though Google deserves strong praise for its move, its motives must be questioned. Remember, it’s been doing Beijing’s dirty work for the four years it has operated Google.cn.
It’s worth asking why the company has suddenly changed its mind now. An attempted hack on its systems doesn’t seem sufficient justification. Could it be that Google has already decided to pull the plug because its business in China isn’t doing well?
Sarah Lacy of the website TechCrunch says Google has “clearly decided doing business in China isn’t worth it, and is turning what would be a negative into a marketing positive for its business in the rest of the world”.
Could a company that claims to “do no evil” really be so Machiavellian?
- McLeod is founder and editor of TechCentral; this column is also published in the Financial Mail