Google co-founders Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin probably never thought of themselves in Reagan-esque terms. Yet, their declaration this week that they are no longer willing to censor what Google allows to be posted on the Internet in China effectively calls upon that nation’s communist dictators to tear down their digital wall against the free flow of information.
Google’s challenge was issued in a post on the company blog by David Drummond, the firm’s chief legal officer. He described “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google.” Drummond said Google also discovered that Gmail accounts of dozens of Chinese and Western human rights activists have been routinely monitored “by third parties.”
As a result, he said, Google is reviewing its operation in China and is prepared to end it. The company’s China office opened in 2006 after the Mountain View-based Internet giant agreed to Chinese government demands that it be allowed to censor dissident Internet content, a decision for which the U.S. firm was widely criticized by human rights advocates and others.
Whatever one thinks of Google’s previous decisions regarding China, the company deserves commendation now for stepping forward to shine light on an issue of fundamental importance: Should profit be more important than principle to U.S. firms operating in foreign nations that do not accord their citizens basic human rights? Google thus went public “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 debate around the globe about freedom of speech,” Drummond said.
The usual rationale for U.S. business investment in China and other nondemocratic countries is the positive result that comes from opening them up to the multiple benefits of free trade. There is much truth in that view, but profitable businesses require credible enforcement of contract law and predictability of official regulation, both of which cannot be assured in a country like China, which is still ruled, despite its economic progress, by a political dictatorship. The same cybermachinery used to suppress political dissent can be turned against executives with companies like Google to monitor their activities.
So, Drummond said, during the next several weeks, Google will “be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.” The stakes could not be higher. If Google prevails and ends official censorship, the company will have helped bring freedom to more than a billion people.