Google's good deed in China

Thursday, March 25, 2010

IT'S NOT often that a major multinational corporation sacrifices profits and the possibility of substantial growth for a human rights principle. So Google deserves praise for its groundbreaking decision to move its China-based search engine from the mainland to Hong Kong and end its censorship of searches. The shift does not mean that Chinese will be able to learn about Tiananmen or Tibet through Google searches; Beijing's firewall has already begun screening such content from Google.cn. But the company itself will no longer be engaged in suppressing Internet freedom on behalf of an authoritarian government. In drawing that line, Google sets an example that other U.S. firms should follow -- and that the Obama administration should defend.

It remains to be seen exactly what price Google will pay for its decision. It chose to continue offering non-search services, such as maps and music sharing, from the mainland and to leave its research and development team and sales force in place. But China's angry reaction to Google's announcement may portend steps more punishing than the screening of content coming from Hong Kong. Beijing could block the site entirely -- as it has done for Facebook, YouTube and Twitter -- or shut down Google's mainland operations. There is talk that Chinese mobile phone companies will drop Google or Android, its new mobile operating system. The Obama administration should be working against such punishments. The administration has been strong on rhetoric in support of Internet freedom but relatively weak in practice. Among other things, it should recognize that the exclusion of Google and other U.S. Internet businesses from the Chinese market is an unfair trading practice; Chinese imitators of Google, Facebook and Twitter have taken advantage of the government's restrictions to build their own businesses.

Other U.S. technology companies have something to learn from Google. Apple and Microsoft have gone along with Chinese censorship demands; Microsoft may even be positioning its Bing service to benefit from Google's departure. These companies claim to support free speech and Internet freedom. If that is true they, too, should stop acting as the Chinese government's censor.


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