More on Google & China

Josh Schrei has a truly excellent piece on The Huffington Post about why Google’s decision to end it’s partnership with the Chinese government should be a model for all Western companies doing business in China. The whole thing is worth a read, but this passage stands out:

While I applaud Google for their brave decision, their “discomfort” around having to censor should have been taken more seriously the first time around, because there are very few good places such a decision can lead. Once you go down that road, it will inevitably lead to places of greater ambiguity, greater ethical dilemma, and greater concern. Luckily, free thinking minds prevailed, before the unthinkable ( for example, the company NOT disclosing China’s shenanigans in favor of keeping the relationship strong) happened. Over the next few weeks I encourage the Google-folk to maintain the firm stance they did yesterday. Bending on these issues is not an option. Too much is at stake.

Hopefully Google’s actions will start to show some US companies — and our good President, for that matter — that they do have influence with the Chinese, they do have power in that relationship…. and that we can make change by living according to principle. Moving forward, other companies MUST follow Google’s lead. Restrictions should be put in place on selling the Chinese government technology, software, or hardware that enables surveillance and digital privacy invasion. And when Beijing plays foul, in any circumstance, companies have a responsibility to call them out on it, as Google has done.

It is easy, in the relative comfort of our modern lives, to forget the consequences of a few small actions. Censoring a few words here, limiting a few freedoms there, these are significant actions on the perimeter of what is quite literally — along with climate change — the defining issue of our time — whether or not we will live in a free future. The democratizing power of the internet, a truly profound development in the short span of my life, can quickly be turned on its head and used as a means to control a population and as a way to access — and eliminate — those undesirables who think thoughts and write words that are deemed dangerous to power.

Google’s actions in response to hack attacks and invasion of privacy by the Chinese government and Chinese (military) hackers gives lie to the falsehood that the mere presence of Western corporations will be a liberalizing force within the Chinese government. Just as the role of business as a moderating force for Chinese government authoritarianism has been a failure, so too is the passivism in the face of China’s economy that we have seen from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. It’s hard to say that the founder of Google has more conviction and courage than the President and Secretary of State, but that appears to be the case today.

I also want to highlight that Huffington Post has a live blog running of updates on what’s happening with Google in China.  It’s a great resource. Of note, they’ve flagged a Wall Street Journal report that shows that Google founder Sergey Brin was the driving voice for withdrawal of from China, while CEO and long-time defender Eric Schmidt opposed ending their relationship with the Chinese government. This isn’t really shocking – Brin had been publicly vocal about his doubts about this venture since 2006, shortly after launched.

In June 2006, Brin stated that Google had “compromised its principles” in abandoning their “Don’t be evil” motto to partner with the Chinese government and launch In January 2007, Brin again spoke out against the decision, this time citing the site’s poor business performance. He said, “On a business level, that decision to censor… was a net negative.”

What’s clear is that this decision was a long time coming. And as I said when it was announced, this is exactly what rights groups like Students for a Free Tibet, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Reporters Without Borders have been saying Google should have done since Day One. It’s good that Google finally did the right thing, but it came at a high cost in their credibility, at least for many of us in the human rights community. That said, as Josh Schrei points out above, Google has now become a model for Western tech companies behavior in China. Hopefully others follow their lead and stop letting their tools and technology be used by the Chinese government to increase their control over the people of Tibet and China.

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