Thursday, January 14, 2010;
GOOD FOR Google. The company's decision to stop censoring its Chinese search engine is more likely to mean the end of its China-based service than a breakdown of Beijing's political firewall. But more important than the question of whether Google.cn survives is the larger issue that Google has now raised for other Western companies and democratic governments -- which is whether China's gross and growing abuse of the Internet should be quietly tolerated or actively resisted.
Google cited a major instance of that abuse in announcing its policy change: "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack" on Google and more than 20 other large companies aimed at stealing software code. "A primary goal of the attackers," Google said, was breaking into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
This is shocking but unsurprising. Cyber-attacks from China aimed at U.S. businesses, the Pentagon and other government agencies have become commonplace, if not epidemic, in recent years. So have Beijing's demands that Western companies collaborate in its efforts to censor political content on the Internet and snoop on the private e-mails of its citizens, several of whom have been prosecuted with e-mails supplied by Yahoo. China aims not just at eliminating the free speech and virtual free assembly inherent to the Internet but at turning it into a weapon that can be used against democrats and democratic societies.
Until now, Western companies and governments have mostly gone along with Beijing's policies -- though U.S. computer manufacturers successfully resisted an attempt by China last year to require that censoring software be pre-installed on all new computers. Now Google has taken the admirable step of embracing open and public resistance. Skeptics point out that it was losing the search-market battle inside China to the domestic brand Baidu. But Google.cn still attracts tens of millions of Chinese users, who will have questions for their government if the company is driven out. U.S consumers, for their part, should want answers from companies such as Apple and Microsoft, which continue to kowtow to the Chinese censors. Internet activists say Microsoft censors Chinese language searches of Bing both in and outside of China; Apple has blocked Chinese from downloading applications related to the Dalai Lama.
Google's action also challenges the Obama administration, which has been slow to embrace the cause of Internet freedom. The restrictions the Chinese government imposes on Google and other firms ought to be a trade issue as well as a human rights issue; after all Beijing is making it impossible for Western companies to compete in an important part of its market. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a statement Tuesday saying the Chinese government would be asked about the cyber-attacks reported by Google. But another question ought to be directed at her own department, which has sat on funding for Internet-freedom initiatives and denied support to the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, which says its software can circumvent China's firewall. Firewall-busting would allow the Chinese to continue accessing Google's uncensored searches whether or not the company retains a Chinese base. It ought to be a major part of the Internet initiative Ms. Clinton plans to announce this month.