Questioning Google’s Altruism in China

There have been a lot of comments flying around over the past couple days over how much of a “threat” Google has issued toward China, and how much their decision actually relates to any genuine concerns over human rights.  IMHO, of course Google is acting in business interests in this decision, because that’s what businesses do, and of course they agreed to Chinese demands to filter their search (though not quite as much as Baidu).  However I see both issues as different from suspected government hacking against individuals identified with the dissident and human rights advocacy community … this is waaay different than just any simple common cyber-attack.  No, Google did not just become Mother Teresa overnight, but their bold (and costly) decision is still overwhelmingly positive for the discussion it has provoked, and the pressure and embarrassment it has placed on the Chinese authorities.  As an even-handed editorial in the Independent argues, “in the end, it is hard to refute Google’s claim that it is putting its principles ahead of its immediate commercial interest.”  Just ask anybody holding Google stocks.

Anyways, for the other side of the debate, which argues that Google is just behaving as a cold and calculating opportunist, here our favorite tech expert Evgeny Morozov gets down to the nitty gritty:

2. Right until this week future looked anything but bright for Google – the Chinese government had a growing list of restrictions they want to impose. That said, they couldn’t have chosen a better timing for their announcement.  First, Secretary of State Clinton is to make a big speech about Internet freedom on Jan 21: now there is no way she will be able to skirt over the Google/China/cybersecurity issue even if she wants to. Second, tying their announcement about ending their censorship of search results to cyber-attacks on three dozen American companies is also a brilliant PR move: now everyone is concerned that the Chinese might steal sensitive data from the defense industry. It’s no surprise than NSA is getting interested in the story. One doesn’t need to know much about US politics to realize that framing this as a national security issue is going to make Google’s case for US government’s pressure on China much stronger than if it was simply framed as a freedom of expression issue.

3. In other words, Google has managed to turn their business quandary over what to do about China into a political affair, with the US government having no choice but to play second fiddle to Google’s first. Now it’s not just Mountain View vs Beijing, it’s Washington/Mountain View vs Beijing. Brilliant. No wonder Google has been hiring all those smart policy types with government experience: you can see they are acting very smart.