A loss for Google and the Chinese people

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 January, 2010, 12:00am

Imagine a world without Google. The company, after all, is synonymous with the internet and the revolution in the way information and ideas flow freely through much of the planet.

But not in China. When Google compromised its principles by accepting censorship in return for access to the mainland's vast market in 2006, wide dismay was understandable. Politicians from left and right and human rights and free-speech activists condemned it as a sell-out. The company argued then that the benefits of increased access to information and a more open internet justified the decision.

Now Google has changed its tune, citing attempts over the past year to limit freedom of speech and a recent wave of 'highly sophisticated' attacks allegedly originating in China on the company and many other firms, in a bid to hack into the e-mail accounts of activists around the world. As a result, Google has declared that it is unwilling to accept censorship any longer and is ready to shut down Google.cn if it cannot reach agreement with Beijing on operating an unfiltered search engine. The company has been losing market share to Chinese search-engine Baidu. But it would be quitting a market that major multinationals consider crucial to growth.

Constraints on Google's operations over the past three years have turned out to be much more intrusive than agreed bans on sensitive topics like Tibet and Tiananmen Square. More recently, for example, China has briefly blocked access to its main search engine and other services such as Gmail, blocked the video-sharing service YouTube and forced the disablement of a function that lets the search engine suggest terms. The latter move was officially aimed at blocking pornographic material, but effectively limited wider access. Then there was the uproar over the attempt to compel the installation of personal computer software that would have blocked material unsuitable for viewing by children, because of fears it could also be used for political purposes.

The catalyst for the company's about-face was Google's discovery of the attacks on itself and a wide range of companies, said to be aimed at accessing the Gmail accounts of human rights activists in China, and evidence that the accounts of dozens of US and Europe-based rights activists have been routinely hacked by third parties.

The about-face adds to what promises to be a year of tension between the US and an increasingly assertive China over trade, climate change, military developments and human rights. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has already raised the issue to official level by demanding an 'explanation' from Beijing of Google's claims.

The central government is accustomed to major foreign companies adapting to Chinese practices. But when the practices include broad censorship, its citizens are ill-served. Certainly, Google's China service fell well short of its global standards. China has rightly won acclaim for economic achievements that have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. It no longer has any compelling reason to fear the right to expression guaranteed in its own constitution.

Google's stand may redeem it somewhat in the eyes of critics of its willingness to abet increasing restrictions of what Chinese citizens can read online. But for all of Google's economic might - and even with Washington's backing - it seems unlikely that this will result in any change in censorship standards on the mainland. That will be Google's loss, certainly. But it will also be the Chinese people's loss.