Google's possible pullout from China is, I think, both surprising and not. Filtering out references to Tiananmen Square doesn't really meet anyone's definition of a free and open Internet, and it really didn't seem sustainable for the company to ramp up selling itself at home as the protector of Internet openness (see, for example, a recent post on the Google Policy Blog that laid out what amounts to a manifesto for openness) while at the same time scrubbing search results to Beijing's liking.
In many ways, it's satisfying to see the company thinking about telling Beijing to, well, stick it. But it's worth keeping in mind that the Chinese people are, again, the ones stuck with the short end of the stick. Google's argument has always been that a filtered Internet in China was better than an Internet where no one can find anything at all. Over the last several years, Google has seen itself as something of a check on Beijing's ambitions to craft a Chinese Internet in its own image and likeness, a la Cuba's Cuban Internet. And Congress, for one, was a check on Google, like the late Tom Lantos prodding company executives to consider whether they should be ashamed of themselves for indulging Beijing's censorship. I think there might have been something to that, although the company seems to have -- probably rightly -- come to see itself now as an ineffective check.
It's probably better for Google's reputation, not to mention moral authority, to leave China alone. But the depressing part, it seems to me, is that the move would also cut off the people of China from the Internet most of the rest of the world sees. They'd be let with a homegrown search engine that has a history of restricting search results.
(Photo credit: Tim Yang)
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