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.