When, a few years ago, Google agreed to China’s restrictions on the circulation of information and started google.cn, it claimed that “increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed [Google’s] discomfort in agreeing to censor some results.” Now, suddenly, Google is threatening to reverse its policy and close google.cn.

This change of mind came as a response to an intellectual property attack on Google, quite likely to have been conducted by the Chinese government. The fact that the hacking apparently had as one of its main goals the surveillance of Chinese dissidents was secondary in this case (Google, having blocked dissident sites in the past, is an unlikely champion of Chinese dissidents.)

While successfully presented as support for free speech, Google’s action was a direct result of an illegal, even in China, attack on protected source codes. An attack on privacy certainly has free speech implications, but it isn’t exactly to be equated with the free circulation of publicly available information on the Web ­ which is what most of us think about when it comes to Internet censorship. So, Google decided to pull out of China because of a threat to its security system by China’s elaborate apparatus of cyberattack, but presented that as a sacrifice in the cause of free speech.

Before crowning Google as the company that sacrificed the largest market in the world for the principle of free speech, it is worth remembering that Google has willingly conformed to the laws of not only China, but also, Turkey (a prominent internet censor whose actions have often blocked various pages and services directly), France, Germany and other countries and censored information that would be readily available in the US. Under French and German law, for instance, hate speech and Holocaust denial are illegal. Google has complied with these laws by not including sites containing such material in its search results.

In the case of Germany, violent or sex-related sites such as YouPorn and BME that the Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien
deems harmful to youth are also censored. YouTube (owned by Google) in its Terms of Service prohibits the posting of videos which violate copyright or contain pornography, obscene or defamatory material. User-posted videos that violate such terms may be removed and a user’s account may be terminated at You Tube’s discretion.

Google is not unique in its policies to restrict internet communications in compliance with local laws ­ and go beyond them, as in the case of YouTube.

And I tend to agree with the pragmatic rationale that increased access to information and a more open Internet outweighs the discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. It is hard to see how China would be swayed in its human rights policies by Google’s symbolic act of refusal to censor. ­ Google is, in spite of its market dominance, not the only search engine (in fact, Baidu has a larger share of the Chinese market). But one thing that Google’s action has accomplished is a renewed commitment to free speech online internationally; ­ it will become hard to support restrictions on web communications at home while vocally condemning them in China.

In conclusion, hats off to Google for getting great publicity, while highlighting the value of free speech throughout our increasingly denser, yet smaller and smaller, world.

Stay tuned for our comments on Clinton’s response…