Google and Free Speech

Google issued a statement alleging that agents acting on behalf of China had tried to hack into certain corporate networks, including Google’s and the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents. They also announced that they would no longer censor search results on their Chinese search engine, which is required by Chinese law.

This is pretty important in many ways. Google is willing to give up China as a market in support of free speech. Some commentators have said that they were getting thrashed by Baidu anyway and so there’s not much that they’re giving up. But that is wrong. China is going to be the biggest internet search market in the world in a few years. It is unquestionably important. To even be second in that market could be worth a lot. That Google, a public company, is willing to give that up to hold up a principle, is huge. I can’t immediately recall any sacrifice of this magnitude by a public company for a principle.

The Chinese government did not respond directly to Google’s press release. Instead it just reiterated that internet companies must abide by the law of the land. The Chinese authorities are unabashed in their quest for “managing” opinion on the internet.

From the New York Times:

“China’s Internet is entering an important stage of development, confronting both rare opportunities and severe challenges,” Mr. Wang said. “Internet media must always make nurturing positive, progressive mainstream opinion an important duty.”

Is this China just cocking a snook at the rest of the world? Are they saying “We are China. We make the rules. You obey them or leave.” Or is it that in their scheme of things, free speech isn’t a high priority? Or rather “managed opinion” is a high priority.

It could be a little of both. Hacking into corporate networks and Gmail accounts is bad stuff. I don’t think there is any school of thought (unless you call “Art of War” one) that will condone that. But they probably know that with enough deniability and their economic muscle they can just keep doing it with impunity.

But on censoring the internet, it may just be that free speech doesn’t hold the same exalted status as it does in the Western world.

India has regularly banned books that the government feels may incite unrest particularly amongst religious groups. In the Indian context I think that is a very pragmatic approach. It does mean that some works of literature are denied to the Indian public. It also means that this exception to free speech can be misused by a government. But on balance it is a modest price to pay.

Free speech is enshrined in the US constitution – the First Amendment in fact. Nowhere is it held in greater sanctity than in the US. But even in the Western world, the ideal of free speech can get tarnished as it collides with other laws. In the UK for instance, the libel laws are such that a science writer of repute like Simon Singh can be brought to his knees by the British Chiropractic Association because they don’t like the way he described chiropractors.

In China, for the society and form of government they have, uncontrolled political discourse on the internet, could be viewed as dangerous and harmful to society. A little criticism of the Communist Party one day become an Iranian style Green Revolution the next. Imagine a country of the size of China in the midst of what Iran is going through. It can’t be good for anyone, least of all for China’s political classes. I may not agree with their views on censorship, but I understand them. And it seems like most Chinese would rather be able to buy a car than have access to the writings of Chinese dissidents.

A great piece on China’s subtle censorship on the internet by James Fallows at The Atlantic.


  1. Roopesh says:

    There are more aspects to Google's pullout from China that are coming out in public this week:

    – Sergey Brin, a refugee from the repression of Communist Soviet Russia, was not in favor of Google's compromise with the Chinese right from the beginning.

    – Google is facing privacy concerns with the concentration of personal data on their servers; and this was a good way to show that it is going to protect it's users.

    – Finally China has been pushing Google out anyways to make way for indigenous search engines; and this intrusion was the right button to push. They have the money to invest in indigenous technologies so once the know-how and technical skills are available, the foreign competitors can be kicked out and the large market value captured by local companies. See:


  2. PS , India says:

    I think the basic issue is backstabbing. Something nobody likes, but a very normal phenomena in corporate life.

    Four years back, Google , in good faith agreed to censure content, so that there could be a start in a relationship. But four years down, that trust seems to have been broken. Hence Google's reaction to attacks on its infrastructure is to pull the plug, though both do not seem related.

    That, I think is the core issue.



  3. Ved says:

    I find it very difficult to digest this ‘sacrifice on principle’ thing. Google knew they have to abide by ‘china law’ before they decide to enter the China market. If principle was to dear to them, they should not have entered the market. probably they thought market to too big to think about principles.

    It is only when they realized that though market is big they are not going to be largest player so not significant revenue all the principle things become important.

    In my view, as usual this is very amercian view of looking at things, as long as you are benefitting it is not a violation of principle, but when they decided to withdraw it become principle issue.


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