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Trying to make sense of the Google-China standoff

If Google can provide your e-mail, your map, your Web browser, your cellphone and more, why not outsource your foreign policy to the company as well?

When the Mountain View, Calif., firm published that Jan. 12 blog post protesting the hacking attempts and mounting censorship it's been subjected to since setting up shop in the People's Republic of China, it sounded much more like a privatized State Department than a for-profit, publicly owned company.

(The column has a lot of links to other sources, but if you follow only one of them, it should be the pointer to the excellent description of China's Web filtering and censorship operations James Fallows wrote for the Atlantic while working in China.)

I've been mulling over what that means since then, which led to a blog post the next day and then today's column -- and yet I'm still not quite sure what to think.

On one hand, private enterprise can exert a substantial influence and provide a positive example overseas; witness the pressure put on American companies doing business in apartheid-era South Africa to either practice "corporate civil disobedience" or get out of the country. I see Google's announced intention to stop censoring search results at its China-based site -- even if that means having the site and, ultimately, its Chinese operation shut down -- as a fine and honorable example of that.

On the other hand ... well, this is the company that provides such an overwhelming variety of Web and computing services that it's starting to feel like the public utility you can't avoid doing business with. If any one company can shock the communist rulers in Beijing into reconsidering their actions, it would be Google. But if that's true, it also speaks to the difficulty of democratic, non-totalitarian governments might have policing Google as its reach and influence grow.

I suppose you could summarize my still-unformed views as this message to Google: "You guys had better be dead serious about all that 'don't be evil' stuff."

What's your read on this issue? Post your thoughts in the comments -- then stop by my Web chat to discuss things in real time with me, from noon to 1 p.m.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 22, 2010; 10:37 AM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics , Security , The Web  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Microsoft fixing Internet Explorer vulnerabilities. Again.
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A fellow graduate student of mine wasn't even able to check her student email (our college uses gmail for all student accounts) while home in China. That seemed very strange to us. We figured out a work-around, but I think this is related to this very issue.

Posted by: rjrjj | January 22, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

I think it can be said that google is less evil than many other companies at least right now, but I don't think that means no evil. Unlike facebook, they seem to maintain consistent privacy policies, but I don't particularly care for the data they could (and perhaps do) gather.

Posted by: ah___ | January 22, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

I am delighted to find a journalist who is willing to say that he has unformed opinions and is still searching for his final conclusions. This means you are stuck in the "murky in between". A place most journalists feel is anathema. My hat is off to you and I will keep reading to see how you sort this out. PS. I, too, am in the murky area on this one.

Posted by: wovose | January 23, 2010 7:01 AM | Report abuse

While I laud Google for the stance it took with China, personally I avoid using Google Search and their apps--I use a search service (Clusty) that promises NOT to save information about me. As great as the company is (and I admire them as a one who constantly is willing to be inventive), I can't really trust them, because I'll never know what happens to all that data they keep.

Posted by: krazykat23 | January 24, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

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