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Google's threats are too little, too late

Action over China is long overdue

There are roughly 1.3 billion people living in China, not one of whom is likely to be able to read this blog. That's got less to do with whether Google opts to pull out of China, and more to do with the "Great Firewall of China" in particular, as well as the Chinese regime's lack of respect for freedom of speech in general.

Nevertheless, it must be getting ever more difficult for Google to defend its decision to operate in China, and in so doing comply with Beijing's insistence that the search-engine giant, too, censor the search results that the people of China are able to see.

Indeed, Google's decision to open an office in China made it a mere pawn in Beijing's attempts to repress free speech. No surprise that the move to operate in China was widely criticised when first announced. One must wonder whether, if the company had been around during South Africa's apartheid years -- in which successive Pretoria governments censored books, magazines and other literature they deemed destabilising -- Google would have gone into business there, even if this had involved helping to enforce such restrictions, thereby assisting suppression of freedom of speech and the anti-apartheid movement.

So, that Google is threatening to pull out of China -- only now, and only after heavy cyberattacks on Google and 30 other Silicon Valley firms -- will do little to reassure civil liberties campaigners. They justifiably argue that the company, in its dealings with China so far, has done little more than put profits above all else.

Google's involvement in China began not when it opened operations there in 2006, but when it bought a 2.6 per cent stake in China's leading search engine, Baidu, back in 2004. At the time, it looked as though Google's plan was to buy the Chinese company outright in advance of its public flotation. Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, met with Li Yanhong, Baidu's chairman, in July 2005. Some believe he was keen to acquire Baidu rather than produce a Chinese-language version of the Google search engine, which it didn't have at that time.

But, for whatever reason, Google decided to go it alone in China, and in June 2006 it offloaded its stake in Baidu (making about a $50m profit) as it ramped up its own activities there. That meant, of course, agreeing to co-operate with the government's censorship mandate, the "Great Firewall of China".

Google has not been the only offender. In June 2006 the NGO Reporters Without Borders carried out tests of what was being filtered not just by Google, but also by Baidu, Yahoo.cn and Microsoft's MSN. It found Yahoo.cn to be censoring results as stringently as the local Baidu, and also contradicted Microsoft's claims that it was not applying any special filters to MSN searches in China.

Unease

To be fair, Google did not have an easy decision to make when considering its attitude to the Chinese search market. Baidu, Microsoft, Yahoo and others were all actively going after it, and with China home to the largest internet market by users, at more than 350 million, it is one with enormous potential. The search-engine market in China was estimated to be worth in the region of $300m in the third quarter of 2009, up almost 40 per cent year-on-year.

It's clear that Google agonised over its decision, too. Back in 2006, the Associated Press reported Sergey Brin, the Google co-founder, as having "acknowledged . . . the dominant internet company has compromised its principles by accommodating Chinese censorship demands. He said Google is wrestling to make the deal work before deciding whether to reverse course."

But neither the fact that it has not been the only firm playing ball with Chinese censorship demands, nor whether it agonised internally over the decision, should have made it acceptable for a company to put its own profits ahead of the freedoms of more than a billion people.

At the very least, Google could have come out in support of the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC), which pushed the US administration to launch a trade dispute with China over its internet censorship. It gained only limited support from the search-engine industry.

A Google spokesman said his company "supported the idea that censorship should be seen as a trade barrier and should be included in negotiations, but added that it did not have an official position on the CFAC petition", according to the Financial Times.

So while news that Google is now going to take action to ensure that its content is not censored in China -- a move that will almost certainly lead to its withdrawal from the Chinese market -- is welcome, it shouldn't have got itself into this mess in the first place. Perhaps it's time for Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and the other search-engine players to make a united stand against Chinese censorship.

It may not be a battle they can win today. But, for the rights of those 1.3 billion citizens who won't be able to read this blog, it's one battle from which they must not walk away.

Jason Stamper is the New Statesman technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review

 

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