China's renewal of Google's license offers hope of resisting censorship

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

THE GAMBLE paid off. After Google changed its Chinese home page into a "landing page" with music and translation services that linked searches to the uncensored Google.com.hk, China renewed Google's Internet content provider license. For now, this decision by China marks the conclusion of the dance between the world's largest country and one of the Internet's largest companies that began in January with Chinese cyberattacks on the accounts of human rights activists and resulted in Google's decision to cease cooperating with Chinese censorship demands. Other businesses must take heed: It is possible to cling to principle while continuing to do business in China.

Increasingly, China outsources Internet censorship to the private sector. The Chinese government could not maintain its control over the content that citizens access online without the aid of private companies that deputize whole departments to assist in round-the-clock censorship of sensitive topics. Without this elaborate and multifaceted system, the Great Firewall would be an irritating but blunt instrument, easy to evade with circumvention technologies. The wide-ranging thought control that imprisons bloggers, cracks down on "sensitive" messages, and shuts down some Web sites altogether could not survive. Before, companies could claim that aiding and abetting such censorship was a condition of doing business in China. This argument no longer holds.

Although Google in January had a nearly 30 percent share of the Chinese online search market, its Chinese revenue was negligible in contrast to its other sources of income. Internet corporations whose only business lies in China lack such a cushion, making it a more dangerous proposition for them to stand up to censors. But even for such companies, such a stance is possible. And as the Chinese online population continues to grow and demand unfiltered access to information -- especially crucial for burgeoning business interests -- companies should follow Google's lead in pushing back against the censorship that has too long been accepted as the status quo. Other Western companies -- especially Yahoo and Microsoft -- no longer have an excuse to continue abetting China's censors.

Though China may still interfere when Chinese users seek Google searches from the Hong Kong site, Google's action has shown -- at least for now -- that foreign firms needn't give up every principle to do business inside China.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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