Two Cheers for Google

January 14, 2010

I don't think I have to tell you that CFI vigorously opposes government suppression of free expression. There is no guarantee that freedom of speech and inquiry will lead us to the truth, but it's a sure thing that censorship creates formidable barriers for those searching for the truth --which is why governments that have things to hide resort to censorship.

China is one such government. China has utilized highly sophisticated filters and firewalls that block access to "subversive" Internet sites, such as Facebook and YouTube. But China not only restricts its citizens' access to information, but it also engages in cyber warfare, hacking into servers to obtain information about human rights activists.

It was one such recent cyber attack that led Google to make an extraordinary announcement the other day. Google stated that there was evidence that a highly sophisticated attack originating in China had been carried out against its infrastructure, and that one goal of this attack was to access Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents and activists. Importantly, in light of this development, Google stated that it would "review the feasibility of [its] business operations in China," effectively suggesting that it would pull out of China.

And most significantly, Google explained the rationale for this decision to reconsider doing business in China. Google stated that China's actions go "to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech." Part of that debate centers on whether Western businesses should assist Chinese economic development even when they know that China routinely violates the rights of its citizens. The usual argument previously offered for doing business in China (other than the obvious commercial one) is that this would result in increased contact with the West and increased access by the Chinese to Western sources of information. The unstated and mistaken premise in this argument was that the Chinese government would permit its citizens this greater access to information. It is now abundantly clear it will not. China has become more authoritarian, not less, perhaps in part because its economic development has emboldened its leaders. They believe they can keep China's people content even if they are denied basic freedoms, and they have nothing to fear from an economically weakened West. China's official reaction to the Google announcement , just released a short while ago, confirms that it will not yield on the issue of human rights.

Congrats to Google for putting human rights ahead of dollars (of course, Google can afford to, but financial self-sufficiency doesn't always prevent moral compromise). I'd say "three cheers for Google" but it's not clear yet what Google's final position will be. I hope Google adheres to its tough, principled stand, and that other companies will follow its example.


#1 SimonSays on Thursday January 14, 2010 at 2:04pm

Two cheers indeed on that one. It’s not often a big company potentially forgoes a large market like China.

Now if only they would take a similarly principled stand on American users’ privacy:

#2 Benjamin Radford on Thursday January 14, 2010 at 4:54pm

About damned time!

#3 SimonSays on Monday January 18, 2010 at 6:51pm

Glenn Greenwald just wrote an article noting the double standard that our lawmakers place on illegal surveillance by other countries while immunizing US telecom companies that allowed similar abuses domestically:

#4 Max (Guest) on Monday January 18, 2010 at 11:15pm

I’m surprised he didn’t mention National Security Letters.
Speaking of which…

“Intelligence agencies intercepted communications last year [2008] and this year [2009] between the military psychiatrist accused of shooting to death 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., and a radical cleric in Yemen known for his incendiary anti-American teachings.”

I haven’t seen any explanation of how they intercepted the messages, but I’m glad they did. Too bad they decided not to act on the intelligence, but at least they’re targeting terrorists, not peaceful political dissidents as China does.

#5 Max (Guest) on Monday January 18, 2010 at 11:25pm

“Congrats to Google for putting human rights ahead of dollars”

Google complained that the hackers stole its intellectual property. Industrial espionage can cost Google a lot of dollars.

#6 SimonSays on Tuesday January 19, 2010 at 6:20am

Max, the NY Times article you provide once again quotes “anonymous government officials” and does not tell us for example if Hasan’s calls were intercepted as part of a legal investigation and with a warrant.

Greenwald is explicitly referring to wiretapping *without* a warrant:

IMO its OK to wiretap, but only if it is done within a comprehensive legal framework and with accountability. But allowing the government to do this willy-nilly would be illegal, unnecessary, and would lead to abuses. If you think that our government only spies on terrorists, see here for just one ACLU case from Maryland in 2007 (emphasis mine):

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland today made public what it called “shocking” documents obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) lawsuit, revealing that the Maryland State Police (MSP) engaged in covert surveillance of local peace and anti-death penalty groups for over a year from 2005-2006. The organization expressed alarm at the incomprehensible spying revealed in 43 pages of summaries and computer logs, none of which refer to criminal or even potentially criminal acts, other than a few isolated references to plans for completely nonviolent civil disobedience.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.