Back to China, via Pyongyang?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 4:57am

"Don't be evil" may be Google's motto. But Google is also the company most often decried as bent on world domination. So what was its executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, doing last week in North Korea, a country with just 24.5 million people who are not connecting to the internet any time soon?

It was billed as a private visit, but the US State Department has called it "unhelpful". I am sure Schmidt is a nice person. He is also famous for his interest in countries that have only restricted internet access. But did curiosity and compassion alone drive such a high-profile visit against Washington's wishes?

News reports and editorials dutifully repeat his warning that North Korea must open up and learn to harness the internet or it will be left far behind. Schmidt is a smart guy. Did he seriously think Our Young Leader Kim Jong-un was all ears just because Google said so? But perhaps Schmidt had bigger fish to fry than the hermit state. Let's consider some of the things he said which may give a better idea about what he is at.

"Once the internet starts, citizens in a country can certainly build on top of it, but the government has to do something," Schmidt told reporters. "They have to make it possible for people to use the internet, which the government in North Korea has not yet done. It's their choice now, and in my view it's time now for them to start or they will remain behind."

Perhaps he was actually talking about China, North Korea's sugar daddy, but also sending a signal that Google was willing to engage even authoritarian regimes that practise heavy censorship.

China already has more than 500 million internet users, compared with 220 million in the US. That's a different equation than 24 million. And despite the widely reported spat between Beijing and Google in 2010, the firm never really left the mainland. It still has hundreds of engineers and staff there, and is looking to expand services. According to some reports, Schmidt, then the CEO, was willing to put up with Chinese state censorship in 2010. It was co-founder Sergey Brin who forced his hand.

Google can't ignore the China market. Soon or later, it will make peace with Beijing. Last week's visit may be the first step.