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.)
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 google.cn 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.
January 22, 2010; 10:37 AM ET
Categories: Policy and politics , Security , The Web
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