Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Google in the crosshairs

Last week, as some of you may remember, I wrote a post on Google's decision to censor itself in China in return for access to a huge, growing market. You can find that post here.

Reaction in the blogosphere was fierce and overwhelmingly anti-Google. And I agree to this extent: Google's decision to censor itself is both hypocritical, given its opposition to governmental interference in the United States, and a reflection of unabashed greed.

And I agree further that China's totalitarian regime is reprehensible and that we need to take a tougher stance on China regarding trade, investment, relations with Taiwan (which we should continue to support), and, of course, human rights.

Yet I suggested in my post that there could yet be unintendedly positive consequences to Google's presence in China, even under censorship. If the internet is a liberating medium (which it is), then China is better off with it than without it. Or, I should say, the Chinese people, not to mention democratic elements pursuing reform in China, are better off with it than without it. And Google, let's face it, is essential to the internet. That is, the service it provides, a search engine for the dissemination of information, is essential.

No, the Chinese won't be able to Google, say, Tienanmen Square or Falun Gong. And that's not good. They deserve to know what happened in Tienanmen Square and what Falun Gong is all about. Indeed, they must know. But, for now, what if, say, a young Chinese boy wants to Google, oh, Yao Ming. Wouldn't his virtual interaction with the West via a Chinese NBA star not be to his benefit? And what if millions of Chinese boys were to Google Yao Ming? Wouldn't they learn something of his life in America? Wouldn't they learn something of America?

Well, ultimately, it won't just be Yao anymore. It'll be Tienanmen Square and Falun Gong. Even the most totalitarian of regimes (and China isn't quite North Korea), after all, cannot completely shut off the flow of information from the outside.

In this sense, Google's censored presence in China may yet be the thin end of a wedge that is essential to opening up China to alternatives to its brutal totalitarianism. I'm not suggesting that Google, a business focused on its bottom line and certainly without the purest of motivations, will be leading the revolution -- but wouldn't that be a good thing?

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On Saturday, The Boston Globe published an article by one of its technology reporters, Hiawatha Bray, on the blogosphere's reaction to Google's decision. I'm pleased to let you know that the article quotes me and refers to The Reaction. You can find the article here.

Update: My new friend Linkmeister (he of his excellent eponymous blog) informs me that I've also been quoted in Time's Blogwatch column. You can find it here.

Unfortunately, neither the Globe nor Time links back here, but, well, who knew that my unconventional defence of Google would attract such attention?

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