Blog: Google finally takes free-speech stand against China

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Comment? E-mail me

Google may yet get it right on free expression and China.

The huge search-engine company, operating in China since 2006, had accepted government-imposed limits on searches as a condition of doing business in the rapidly developing nation — as have many companies. Searches on controversial areas, from civil unrest to Chinese policies regarding Tibet, were off-limits and blocked to Google users in China.

But yesterday, noting that unknown hackers used the service to target the company as well as the g-mail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists, a Google spokesman said, “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”

More than two-thirds of Internet searches in China use a domestic search engine, Baidu, according to news reports, but Google is a strong second. Companies doing business of any kind in the nation are required to follow Chinese laws and limitations, including rules regarding the Web.

Noting that about 20 companies in various industries, not just Google or Web-based firms, were targeted, David Drummond, a senior vice president at Google, said, “We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech.”

Company leaders were said to have long been concerned about the free-speech limits that Google had accepted in China. Some U.S. free-speech advocates also have noted that even though huge Web operations like Google, America Online and Yahoo are so dominant they can set policies and practices like governments, First Amendment protections for individual free expression don’t apply to private company decisions or actions.

If Google abandons its China foothold, the company may send a strong message to Chinese leaders and others that content limits are off the table when negotiating trade or operating agreements.

Still, China has one of the world’s most efficient systems of controlling e-mail, social-networking sites and what appears on the Web inside its borders. Even a Google snub may not quickly dislodge that censorship machine.

First Amendment Center experts are available to discuss the impact of the Google threat to discontinue its China operations and the implications for free expression in that nation. To arrange an interview, please contact Brian Buchanan.

Comment? E-mail me