Google's principled stand deserves credit

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 March, 2010, 12:00am

A company willing to stand up to Beijing and refuse to abide by mainland laws might be thought foolhardy given the business opportunities China has to offer.

Google's decision to break with the requirements and stop censoring its mainland search engine has certainly provoked anger there, and jeopardised both its expansion plans and profits. The company deserves credit for making a principled stand and underlining the need to protect free speech.

The decisions will leave it with a clearer conscience and head off criticism from critics of its mainland operations. In the end, Google did not leave China altogether, though. Those using the popular search engine on the mainland are now directed to its Hong Kong site. Sadly, censorship remains - it is now carried out by the central government rather than by Google. So, for all the controversy, not much has changed for the mainland's internet users.

Google has the world's most-used internet search engine, a powerful brand and spreading influence. This is of little consequence to the central government, though. No matter how important a company may be, strict operating rules are applied, signed up to and enforced in the name of keeping control. The US-based firm had promised to filter from its searches - and until yesterday, had been doing so - websites containing material critical of Beijing or not in sync with its views.

Exactly why the company shut down its mainland Chinese-language portal is unclear. As its business interests are small - Google plays second fiddle in the search engine arena to homegrown rival Baidu - there are suggestions it was a publicity stunt. Pressure from the US government could have been at play. The firm's line is that it is making a stand against strict censorship regulations and cyber attacks on the e-mail accounts of clients. Whatever the truth, there is no disputing a bold statement has been made.

Before the decision, most companies operating on the mainland had complied with the rules. More than a dozen government agencies implement the arbitrarily applied laws, guidelines, regulations and other tools to keep information from the nation's 384 million internet users. A wide range of websites are blocked - those containing material about Tibet, the Falun Gong religious group, human rights and politics. Criticism of the Communist Party and leaders is frowned upon. There is no justification for such censorship. Arguments can be made for restricting pornographic material but wholesale clamping down on ideas and information from within and outside the country is harmful. If China is to have an open and advanced economy where sensible decisions about vital issues like health, employment and business can be made, knowledge is needed.

Google's switch to Hong Kong has been foiled by the central government censors. Perhaps the company's business interests in China have been irreparably damaged. For a firm that is so innovative, this is, perhaps, a small price to pay. No right-thinking government should unduly restrict the basic right of free speech.