Our view on capitalism vs. censorship: Google’s threat to leave puts China on notice

Our view on capitalism vs. censorship: Google’s threat to leave puts China on notice
Ultimatum shines harsh spotlight on restrictions, theft of technology.

It's about time somebody stood up to the Chinese government, and Google, inventor of the world's top search engine, might be powerful enough to make a difference.

Google's threat to pull out of China, made in a feisty blog announcement this week, is revolutionary, which is why it's so important. For years, Western companies, from automakers to aircraft manufacturers, have put up with outrageous Chinese demands in return for access to the enormous, fast-growing market.

Web giants were no exception. Their willingness to kowtow to China, however, has had a uniquely dangerous result: It has helped a totalitarian regime muzzle free expression, hold back human rights and punish the brave Chinese citizens who tried to promote both.

Google.cn, a Chinese version of its search engine launched four years ago, omitted results the Chinese government found objectionable, such as references to Tiananmen Square. Microsoft agreed to block certain words — democracy, freedom and human rights, for example — by users on its Chinese Internet portal. Most shamefully, Yahoo turned over data to Chinese officials that helped convict journalist Shi Tao for leaking a propaganda directive. Shi was sent to prison for 10 years.

Now, Google has finally drawn a line in cyberspace. Good!

The last straws, the company said, were cyber attacks, originating in China, that stole company secrets and targeted the Gmail accounts of human rights activists. Google said that if China won't allow uncensored searches, it will pull out.

The Chinese government isn't expected to quake at Google's threat. The first official response Thursday said Web companies must obey Chinese law and gave no hint of compromise. But the ultimatum already has done some good by putting censorship and its consequences on center stage.

On a Chinese blog this week, thousands of citizens expressed their anger — some of it aimed at the government — at the prospect of Google leaving. This could inspire them to seek to jump the "Great Firewall" in search of uncensored information.

The showdown has also exposed a little-known, but serious, U.S. vulnerability: suspected Chinese cyber attacks that have stolen data from the Pentagon, national laboratories and companies that hold some of America's most advanced technology. The publicity might prompt companies and the U.S. government to stop being played for saps.

If Google's threat inspires other companies to show some spine, China would have less clout to impose its demands on U.S. interests.

Critics of Google's threat to pull out argue that no one can win a fight against censorship by leaving. Perhaps. But Google and other Web giants have tried the other approach for years, figuring that it's better to be in China than leave the huge market, with 338 million Internet users, to Chinese companies under Beijing's thumb. Now that they've gotten a foothold, the leverage cuts both ways.

Lots of words were wasted this week on whether Google's decision was inspired more by its "don't be evil" motto or by a view to its bottom line. Google's share of business is less than half of its Chinese rival, Baidu. But motivations don't really matter.

China has shown itself to be a thug when it comes to the free flow of information. If that pushes one of the world's most successful and popular companies out the door, the Chinese people will notice.
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