Guardian column: Google is our ambassador

Here’s my Guardian column this week on Google and China. See also this post proposing a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace.

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This year at Davos, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told a room of journalists that his company is not a country, does not set laws, and does not have a police force. Yet in its showdown with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet. Well, somebody has to.

Next to no one has been willing to stand up to China’s suppression of speech online. Other companies—Yahoo—have handed over information that led to the imprisonment of dissidents. More companies—Cisco—have helped China build its Great Firewall. Many more—from News Corp to the New York Times Company—have coveted the Chinese market and overlooked the regime’s tyranny to do business there. Governments have hardly been better, doing little to nothing to pressure China over human and digital rights.

But Google did. Now it has turned off the filter it never should have created if it wanted to stay true to its don’t-be-evil dictum. It has dared the Chinese government to block search and speech and expose its censorship to its people. By its action, Google also dares other companies and governments to follow.

The fight against apartheid in South Africa had its Sullivan Principles; the fight for free speech and a free, secure internet now has its Google Principles. I don’t mean to equate the virtual repression in the Chinese internet with the racial, physical, and economic repression that occurred in South Africa under apartheid. But in both instances, there came a time when companies had to ask—or be asked—whether they could justify supporting tyrannical regimes. Pulling out of China is a moral decision.

Today, moral decisions are also business decisions. London economist Umair Haque argues that when we can all talk about companies online, the price of doing evil has increased. Google is repairing its social standing.

Cynics say Google left China because it was beaten by Baidu; few Western companies are competing well against Chinese counterparts (even Rupert Murdoch has been foiled). But I say Google is instead defending its entire business—because it is defending the internet itself against censorship, government control, espionage, and attack.

Google’s business strategy is dead simple: The more we use the internet, the more Google makes. If governments are allowed and enabled to restrict freedom on the internet to a lowest common denominator (as the U.K.’s libel tourism does for publishing), and if we worry that our data in the cloud is not secure, and if citizens of totalitarian states fear the internet will be used to jail them, then we will trust and use it less. Google loses. We all lose.

But even Google cannot fight this alone. “No single company and no single industry can tackle Internet censorship on its own,” Google’s director of public policy, Alan Davidson, told a Congressional panel last week. He urged Congress to consider withholding development aid for countries that restrict online speech and including a pledge for free speech online in trade agreements. Davidson said 40 nations censor the internet today and 25 governments have blocked Google.

I wait to see what governments in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe will do to support the freedom and security of the Chinese people and of the internet (so far, it seems, the White House is applauding Google’s actions with one hand). I wait to see other companies matching Google’s guts.

Or perhaps what I should wish instead for popular support for free speech in the internet—a movement from us, the society of users. That is how companies and governments were pressured to divest their interests in South Africa. So where is our outcry for freedom and security? The internet is ours to lose.

In 1996, Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow wrote a rousing Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (http://bit.ly/dofi): “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one….”

Perhaps we now need a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace to claim and secure our freedom to connect, speak, assemble, and act online; to each control our own identities and data; to speak our languages; to protect both what is public and private; and to assure openness. (Please come and suggest and discuss its articles at http://bit.ly/cyberrights.)

With that, our diplomatic mission to the old world—Google—can fight for what’s right. After all, someone must.

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  • Brian Gillespie

    Google is their own ambassador. Your “In Google We Trust” stance may result in “expert commentary” gigs on news talk shows today but is will prove misguided in the end.

  • James

    A few years back CNN admitted to covering up abuses by Saddam in Iraq out of fear of losing their Baghdad Bureau. Interesting that an Internet search service seems to be more willing to stand firm in principles than a major medica company.

  • David

    Should we ask consumers also not to buy products made in china? How much more would a laptop or ipad cost if it was made in india or mexico?

  • http://projectheresy.com Tim

    Haven’t seen/read you attack Conroy and the Labor Party in Australia for our GFA (Great Firewall of Australia).

    Censorship and anti-transparency in a developed western democracy, and how!

    Tim

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    Jeff, Google is not “pulling out of China”. As the company has acknowledged, it will continue to “maintain its research, development and advertising sales business in China” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/mar/23/google-china-censorship-hong-kong).

    To extend your Apartheid analogy, this is the equivalent of a country boycotting sports tours to SA in the Apartheid era while still buying South African minerals. I wouldn’t accuse Google of hypocrisy – it’s a company, it does what it has to do – but claiming that it’s some kind of moral leader is bombast.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      And who else has stood up to the Chinese regime? I”m not saying that they wanted this position but by mistakenly going in in the first place they are in that position and no one else has stepped forward.

  • http://jeremiahfoo.com/ Jerry

    jeff, we are figuring out how far or deep the blockade/censorship the gov is enforcing, a small group of people are probing keywords etc throughout the country and comparing results between mainland and hk.

    if you are interested in the results, let me know.

    :-)

  • http://mrtopp.com/ Steve

    While I think that Google’s stand on censorship in China is a positive one, it is also clearly self-interested.

    As much as I think China’s internet policies are backwards and would support action to reduce the censorship of the Internet in China and elsewhere, I think that there is a real danger in allowing corporations to decide which rules they follow, and which they do not.

    In China, Google basically turned off the censorship required by the government. While they did so in a way that measured up to the letter of the agreement they had with the Chinese government, it’s clear that it violated the spirit of the agreement.

    We already live in a world where those lobbying on behalf of corporations have far too much input into laws and government policies; I do not think that Google — or Yahoo! or anybody else — should be applauded for breaking the rules under which a company allows them to do business.

  • Erwin

    Don’t see European parlement wants central internetfilters quickly implemented! Before protesters organise? Leaked document: http://bit.ly/9jvA9m

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/arne.halvorsen Arne Halvorsen

    As we need “Cyberspace Bill Of Rights” we should also think about if we do not also need “Cyberia”, a place on the internet which indeed do declare the “Cyberspace Bill Of Rights” its constitution. I am certain Facebook is not Cyberia, Google may be closer but may not want to be (as a company it could very well be wrong/impossible to be). A powerful Cyberia could be a force of good but even as a construct (in terms what places on the net should do or conform to in order to be a Cyberia). A real Cyberia for sure would act as ambassador. I want to be a Cyberian :-)

  • http://www.sentril.com f. garza

    I just love how everyone is applauding Google for backing out of China but the reason they backed out after five years of attempting to conquer China was because of revenue share.

  • Alagnew
  • ChrisPineo

    Jeff,

    If you are looking to start a movement, you should come down out of your CNN expert commentator tower -walk amongst us mortals- and get it started. I can understand why this would seem counter-intuitive, as you would like it to start on the web, but the web is part of the real world. It is not autonomous of the real world, and certainly the real world is not part of it.

    Cheers,
    Chris

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Uh, what do you call a blog post?

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