By refusing to accept China's censorship for its Internet search engine, Google has sent a message to the authoritarian state and its 300 million Internet users. The hidden cost of doing business may be to sell out the values on which the business depends. It took courage for Google to refuse to pay that price and take on China so publicly, by threatening to pull out if limits on the search engine persist.
Google's business depends on an open, global marketplace of information. China's political system demands control of information. The two are irremediably at odds. But China's market of Internet users (80 million of whom use Google) is the world's biggest, and it could be argued, as Google has since opening in China in 2006, that some openness on the Internet is better than none, and may pave the way for more openness. Google had earlier agreed to banning sensitive subjects and websites.
The immediate provocation was an attack by hackers on Google, and at least 20 other big companies, aimed in large part at the accounts of Chinese human-rights activists. This is not the only such attack. Researchers at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre and SecDev, an Ottawa consulting firm, uncovered a vast computer-spy network last year, which they dubbed GhostNet, that attacked 1,295 computers in 103 countries. At the time, the Canadian researchers said that circumstantial evidence pointed to China, though they could not be certain. The new attack may or may not be linked to GhostNet or the Chinese government.
In any event, Google said it has been subject to growing restrictions in the past year. It had grown frustrated with ad hoc, arbitrary requests for the removal of information about, for instance, corrupt officials, said Ron Deibert, director of the Munk Centre's Citizen Lab, which monitors Internet censorship worldwide. If it didn't comply, its "domain" was taken over and users were sent to competing search engines.
China seems unlikely to be intimidated by Google's threat to pull out, making it all the more important that other companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft join in standing against censorship. Prof. Deibert said China might block Google from indexing any information from that country, which could tempt Iran and Russia to do the same.
Unlike newspapers, radio and television, the Internet is difficult for an authoritarian government to control. Its power is enormous, as the Chinese have discovered: in one case in the summer of 2008, concern that authorities were covering up the truth about a child's death spread over the Internet, prompting 30,000 people to riot. Charter 08, a document calling for an independent judiciary and signed by 300 lawyers and activists, began online.
China is far more likely to respond to internal pressures than to any external one. But in such a plugged-in country, Google's action has already provoked debate and anger. On one Chinese website, about 60,000 people, most unhappy the search engine might leave, made comments before the conversation was yanked. Google may not win its fight with China, but it struck a principled blow for human rights.