What happens when the world’s most innovative company goes nose-to-nose against the world’s largest repressive regime?
On Mar. 22, Google announced that it was pulling the plug on its Chinese Google.cn search site and redirecting its audience to the uncensored web site in Hong Kong – Google.com.hk. Thisis all in response to the mysterious attacks on Google servers originating from China and the ongoing attacks on Google accounts of activists within China.
This means that, until the Chinese government shuts it down — which may have happened by the time you read this — anyone in China can search and read uncensored news originating anywhere in the world. Google had been allowed to enter the Chinese market in 2006 with an agreement with the Chinese government to censor certain verboten search topics.
Many Chinese are already adapt at circumventing the giant firewall of China that prevents accessing news sources that the Chinese government does not approve of, as well as web sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. But now this briefly-opened door allows the casual surfer to access information, for example, on what really happened in Tiananmen Square.
Indeed, the citizens of China may search frighteningly subversive information about what goes on in their own country, news like this piece about activist Gao Zhisheng, an activist who has simply disappeared.
While the ramifications of this dramatic move lay chiefly in the political realm, the business side of this drama is inspiring; when was the last time you witnessed one of the largest companies in the world going head-to-head with such A large foreign government? About human rights?
It is in sharp contrast to the U.S. governments attitude to China. Witness Barrack Obamas visitto China in November which saw him apologize for the weakening American dollar and answer softball questions from government-picked students in Shanghai. This visit occurred shortly after nine minority Uighurs were executed in the aftermath of the Xinjiangriots.
Google is not after mining rights or eyeballs for their web sites but simply the right to offer their services without illegal attacks. China, of course, needs to keep authoritarian control of its society and that means stopping access to the outside world where free speech can threaten its grip.
Unfortunately, Googles move will almost surely have some negative economic impact because it risks cutting itself off from its largest growing market of customers. Already it is being reportedthat China Mobile may scrap a deal with Google under pressure from the government. Chinas second-largest mobile company, China Unicom, is also being influenced to axe an imminent agreement with Google.
And some might argue that a censored Google for Chinas citizens is a lifeline to democracy that is better than no lifeline at all.
When Google threatened to pull out of China in January, its Chinese employees laid wreathesat the company headquarters — lets hope the funeral for Google is premature.