Google's earthquake

Robert Clark
14 Jan 2010

The aftershocks of Google's challenge to China's internet governance will be felt for a long time.

Opinion has quickly divided into the skeptics, who think Google is bailing out of China for business reasons, and those who applaud it for calling China out on its heavy-handed surveillance and censorship culture.

The story has been widely reported in the mainland but in limited form. The measured official response is that the government is seeking talks with Google.

However, the coincidence of Hilary Clinton commencing an Asian sweep on the same day with the assertion that "the US is back in Asia" may tempt China into a hard line. (Clinton has since canceled the trip because of the disaster in Haiti.)

On past behavior, that's highly likely, but this is an unprecedented PR disaster for China. No business has so publicly snubbed it and no internet firm has ever dared to criticize the dark underside of China's internet governance.

Google is at the sharp end of the contradiction in Chinese internet - it embodies the innovation that the government embraces but also the political and intellectual freedom that it is determined to extinguish.

That puts Google in a powerful position, even in China. It means that internationally China can no longer pretend that its internet censorship regime is the same as everywhere else.

For all their posturing, China's leaders crave international respect and if they want to keep they will need to come up with a fix that allows Google to stay.

Of course, they may decide to call Google's bluff, and make the firm welcome when, as some suggest, it is just cutting and running.

True, it has been embroiled in a series of controversies, the latest being a dispute with Chinese writers and publishers over its book-scanning scheme. And true, Google is seen as a proxy for the US while in the west it is criticized for collaborating with one of the internet's enemies.

But it has a healthy one-third share of the China search market, valued at just under $1 billion. Google may well be thinking that that's not worth the trouble. But it may also be thinking that winning a fight on how the internet is governed is worth the effort.

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