Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Google's High Horse

Google is posturing and harrumphing these days. It says it may decide to pull out of China because of continued censorship of its search engine. According to The Economist (“Flowers for a funeral” Jan. 16, p. 41), a report by Google’s chief legal officer says the company is “reviewing the feasibility” of doing business in China because of ever-tightening limits on free speech there.

Memo to Google: There is no free speech in China. They are communists over there.

It simply cannot be the case that Google has not been aware of this fact, so what could they be thinking? Some writers (especially those from Baidu, the number one search engine in China) say that Google is just looking for a cover story to leave China without admitting economic defeat. Naturally, Google Denies this.

Google also cites recent hacker attacks on its Gmail service as a reason to leave. The hackers have been traced back to China and apparently targeted individuals critical of the government.

Memo to Google: One may not criticize the government in China. It is against the law.

And today, the New York Times reports that Google has postponed the release of its new smart phone in China (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/20/technology/companies/20phone.html). The phone uses open source Android software but has been highly customized to work well with Google applications.

Why would postponement of the phone be germane at this time? Google says only that its current controversy with the Chinese government would put a pall of bad publicity over the phone’s release (NYT article). That argument, however, conveniently overlooks the fact that said controversy is censored from Chinese media, so there would be no bad publicity. One can speculate that the real issue involves the phone’s ability to easily record pictures, video, and sound, and upload such information to Google sites. Likewise, there are probably slick interfaces to social networking sites. All of that would be feared by the Chinese government, which wishes to control all the information its citizens receive. That’s my guess.

The Chinese government is on the wrong side of history on this argument, and sooner or later (probably sooner than they would like), it will become infeasible to maintain effective censorship in an age of global communications. I worked with a fellow once who had escaped from Bulgaria (pre-wallfall), and defected to the U.S. He told me that there was an armed guard at every copy machine in the country, the state’s effort to control even the most primitive methods of communication. We know how that turned out. It will be the same in China.

However, until that day, the Chinese government has every legal and moral right to censor anything they please. They are not a democracy. They do not have a Bill of Rights. There is no right to free speech. It is illegal to criticize the government there. They have a different system than we do. So Google should get off its high horse and either comply or get out.

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