In China, Google flexes some foreign policy muscle

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010; G01

It's not every day, week, month or year that one American company essentially threatens to fire an entire country -- much less one with its own stock of nuclear weapons.

But Google not only suggested that it would have to walk away from its business in the People's Republic of China, it did so in a Jan. 12 blog post condemning a list of Chinese offenses including censorship and attempted break-ins of its computer systems.

"These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered -- combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the Web -- have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China," Google declared in the post. "We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on," its China-based search site.

That's a far more public rebuke than anything the U.S. government has said in public. Next to that, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's speech on Internet freedom Thursday reads like a diplomatic (understandably so) attempt to catch up to Google's lead. (And China's Foreign Ministry predictably blasted Clinton's speech, saying that the United States should "cease using so-called Internet freedom to make groundless accusations against China.")

Google's newfound militancy cannot be what the Mountain View, Calif., Internet firm had in mind when it agreed to do business in China in 2006.

At the time, Google took a lot of criticism for agreeing to censorship by Beijing's Communist rulers of In response, it argued that it could make more of the Web's information available to Chinese users with a locally based search engine, and that disclosing when censorship forced it to withhold relevant results -- it follows a similar practice in the United States after removing a YouTube video in response to claims of copyright infringement-- lent transparency to its operation.

(Considering that China's Web filtering apparently operates by making users think that an un-"wholesome" site doesn't exist or isn't working, that second argument seems a fair point.)

Further, Google said it would keep its Gmail and Blogger services based offshore to protect Chinese users of those sites.

But Google might not have realized then that the Chinese government would alter the bargain by demanding stricter censorship or blocking other Google services -- or that Chinese hackers would launch a widespread, well-orchestrated series of attacks on its computers and those of other U.S. companies to break into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

There aren't many things foreign companies can do to stop the abuses of another country's government, but suggesting that the other country's money is no good has to be among the most severe responses possible.

By way of comparison, when Western computer manufacturers didn't want to install "Green Dam" Web filtering software, they did not publicly threaten to boycott the Chinese market -- and, with help from protests by Chinese users, Beijing backed down on that requirement.

Is Google mashing down the panic button just to distract people from worrying about the security of its own systems? That's possible.

But if you analyze its moves in strict business terms, it's easier to conclude that Google is acting against its own shareholders' interests. The company may have a minority of the search market in China, but even that current business is substantial. The potential rewards for staying in the market are far larger. Neither is something to toss aside lightly.

What comes next? Who knows? Google says it has not yet removed the filters on and continues to talk with Beijing about its next move. But why would that regime relent on such a fundamental instrument of state control? Is a shunning by Google that much of a punishment?

That's what makes Google's move -- essentially, setting aside business concerns to act more like a fourth branch of government with its own foreign policy -- so bold. Especially if you compare it with the past conduct of tech companies in the Untied States that complied with warrantless wiretap requests.

And yet there's something just a bit odd about our most public defender of human rights being an unelected, for-profit company that happens to run an e-mail service in which computers scan your messages to match them up with ads.

If you were waiting for confirmation that Google takes your privacy and its "don't be evil" commandment seriously, this act of defiance may be all that you'd hoped for. But please don't treat it as a reason to hand all your business over to Google; applaud the company if you wish, but don't let yourself forget how to fire it.

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