Yesterday, Google started redirecting mainland China search queries through it's uncensored Hong Kong server. Of course, Chinese officials could begin censoring the Hong Kong server results at any time. Google has set up an App Status Dashboard to allow monitoring of 'which Google services are available in China.' Color commentary in a playoff that most analysts believe leave both sides losers.
The business standoff between Google and China boils down to an ethical debate: the rights of individuals to freedom of expression versus a country's right to govern itself. For those of us hot housed under the first amendment and the rights of individuals, the Google versus China debacle is a David versus Goliath showdown. But step outside the circled wagons, and things are not so clear.
I spoke with a Beijing-based colleague last January when Google first drew its line in the sand. I had expected him to be a closeted free speech advocate, rooting for the moral underdog: Google, obviously. He responded that he thought Google was short sighted and making a very stupid move. At first I rationalized our difference of opinion as evidence of what living behind the Chinese firewall can do to a person. But then he said, "Any company doing business in a country must follow the laws of that country." Just what the Chinese government has been issuing as their response to the situation. But hearing it from him, someone I respect, made me realize my only argument sounded more like a middle-schooler than the fair-minded adult I like to think I am: "Yeah, well the laws are WRONG."
Both arguments are based in truth, and both sides will most likely end up losing.
Google loses access to what is quickly becoming the anchor store of the World Wide Web. As of last summer, China crested 384 million users, more than any other country, and that number represents less than one quarter of the country's population. One in five internet users is living in China. Mandarin is now the second most common language on the net, closing in on the 478 million users who use English around the world.
And the Chinese internet community risks becoming more isolated from the world. Chinese knockoffs of blocked sites are already showing up: Youtube.cn and Goojje. Launched with them, a slew of copyright and intellectual property violations. And now that Google has won one for the Gipper, other
U.S. technology companies will have a harder time explaining why they
are still doing business in China.