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Freedom, no compromise

Optimize Blog - January 18, 2010 - 0 comments

Google’s announcement that it is considering pulling out of China raises some interesting questions and no easy answers.
Some background – in 2006 when Google entered China it was roundly criticized in many quarters for enabling China’s repressive control of the media but Google stated that by entering the market it could effect change.  Clearly with the fastest growing and largest internet user population in the world, it also made great commercial sense.  So what has changed and why is Google about to make such an about turn?
China has laws and rules that any business operating in China needs to respect and comply with and these include the filtering of internet content.   The usual knee jerk response to China’s insistence on maintaining its filtering policy is to cry foul – advocating the ‘western’ promise of freedom of the media.  In our view, this is frankly a bit naïve and actually rather ‘one-eyed’.
The most popular criticism is almost always supported by the Tiananmen Square scenario where, if you were to ‘google’ for that in China, you will get quite a different response to the one you would get in the western environment.   Unsurprisingly, in China you won’t actually receive any pictures of the cruel suppression of the student revolt – the search response is filtered.
Now, are commentators actually saying that such filtering doesn’t go on here in the West?  Clearly Google does have to implement filtering policies elsewhere in the world, which it uses to comply with local rules and regulation.  Child pornography is perhaps the most obvious example and quite rightly so.   However, this is where the basis of the ‘indignation’ from the West (and Google) around China’s own desires to control the internet content needs to be considered.  China would simply say that they agree that some internet content undermines the fabric of their values.  Therefore, in real terms, it is the political interpretation over what ‘content’ is appropriate for mass consumption where the West clashes with China.
Google also states that the recent hacking of Gmail accounts by third parties of human rights activists makes their position untenable (the implication that the Chinese Government is behind these attacks is clear).  However, in the US there is the Patriot Act and in the UK there is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act both of which provide the framework for governments to spy on and intercept intelligence from potential anti-state activists… the difference here of course is the West’s view on what is acceptable as ‘anti-state’.
Perhaps the surprise is that the Chinese government has actually responded to Google’s potential departure.  Whilst Google has a little over 30% of the market why does it consider itself able to ask the Chinese government to be exempt from local laws – particularly the laws it agreed to abide by when it entered the market in the first place?
From history we know that regardless of your size and influence (as a corporate or country) holding a gun to China’s head and threatening it has never been a successful strategy.
In our view, if Google is solely acting on the basis of a political stance, it should stay where it is and continue to try and effect change from within.  In addition it should perhaps be a little circumspect on how it defines filtering.
The flip side, of course, is that if they feel that agreeing to stay in China undermines its core values and brand then perhaps Google is right to leave.  But thinking that leaving will change China’s view on what constitutes anti-state demonstrates a quite staggering corporate ego…

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