By now, the news that Google has decided not to censor the Chinese version of its search engine in China and has threatened to pull out of the Chinese market in response to cyberattacks has made it around the world and back again.
ICT welcomes the announcement as a positive development in the quest for internet freedom. (As tangible proof, users of google.cn in China were briefly able to view the iconic picture of the Tiananmen tank man.) The reactions from other human rights groups has been similar (see Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in China, Reporters Without Borders, and Canada Tibet Committee).
We are cautiously optimistic that a rationale for Google’s announcement was the realization by this big technology company that complicity with censorship regimes, especially one that is state-sponsored and as nefarious as the PRC’s, is bad for business in the long run.
The timing is interesting. Google CEO Eric Schmidt is scheduled to speak in front of a conclave of the U.S. House Democrats tonight. And he recently met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (read her statement) on internet freedom, which is the subject of a speech she will deliver on January 21. Let’s be hopeful that governmental pressure had an effect on this corporate decision.
There is room for cynicism, of course. The rationale given by Google – the recent discovery of cyber-attacks on their clients and other companies – is puzzling. As every Tibet support group knows (not to mention most businesses and government agencies having anything to do with China), hacking from suspected Chinese sources is a lamentable fact of life. So what did Google discover that’s new?
Likewise, the threat to leave the Chinese market (for which its share, 31%, is relatively small but not insignificant) defies conventional business wisdom. Here is a blog with a cynical view: Doubting the sincerity of Google’s threat.
For Tibetans, the criminalization of free speech is acute and real. ICT has documented a trend of Tibetans being given harsher sentences for passing on information about protests than for participating in them.
Whatever Google’s motivation behind their decision, the reality is that they’ve set a standard (of non-censorship by Internet companies) that we hope Google will stand by, and that other technology companies will feel pressure to meet. We hope Secretary Clinton will use the opportunity of her January 21 speech to solidify that standard, and give high priority to anti-censorship efforts as a key element of U.S. human rights AND commercial policies, and as a reflection of non-negotiable American values.