It's official. The last of the U.S.'s Internet search giants has opted to become a firewall to freedom. And that deserves a boycott.
Google Inc., one of this country's greatest success stories and a technology company that has become almost synonymous with the Internet and all of the benefits of knowledge sharing the Internet has brought to the world, has put profit ahead of social responsibility by cooperating with one of the world's most repressive governments.
Google today launched a search engine in China that the company proclaimed would help bring more and broader categories of information to the desktops of China's 100 million Internet users (see "Google to launch censored results in China" ). There's a slight problem, however, with Google.cn: Users won't find anything in their search results dealing with the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, issues surrounding Taiwan's independence, or the terms democracy and independence.
But as one astute reader recently pointed out, Google's agreement with the Chinese government is even more insidious.
The China version of Google not only filters out many so-called controversial topics, but for many topics it returns only official Chinese government propaganda. This is a brutal assault on the truth, and Google is complicit in this crime.
In case you haven't already guessed, the search engine's limitations aren't due to any technical glitch. And it certainly has nothing to do with any dubious Bush administration policy on electronic surveillance. To the contrary, this was a policy decision reached solely by Google executives, with the eager help of the tyrannical Chinese government.
Google is certainly not the first Internet company to lend a helping hand to the Chinese government's centralized and coordinated program to squelch freedom of speech and online information sharing. Google competitors Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. agreed to work with the Chinese government on public censorship more than two years ago. But the Google decision to lend tacit (and I would argue explicit) support to China's repressive human rights policies may prove to be more important and longer lasting. The one company that could have made a difference in the lives of 100 million Chinese citizens by standing up and speaking out against online repression has instead solidified the position of U.S. online search giants as the firewalls to freedom.
Mickey Spiegel, a senior researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, agreed that the entry of Google into the exclusive China club has demonstrated the company's lack of social responsibility. The official party line espoused by Microsoft, Yahoo and Google "has been that this is the cost of doing business [in China]," said Spiegel. "But what's the next step? Censorship creates its own momentum. And they've all capitulated. You can either be a gateway to information or a gatekeeper. Google has chosen to be the gatekeeper."
I asked Google how it could morally defend such a business decision. Apparently, my search for a response was filtered.
It's also sadly ironic that the company whose corporate philosophy includes the self-proclaimed truth that "Democracy on the Web works," has decided to abandon everything the Internet and the Information Age stand for by cooperating with a regime that has imprisoned at least 69 people in the past 20 years for their activities supporting a free press or freedom of online expression. OK, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin aren't exactly chips off the old Saddam Hussein block. But I think it's more than fair to say the company should revise No. 4 on its Top 10 Things Google Has Found to Be True to read "Democracy on the Web works: Unless you live in China."
Dan Verton (www.danverton.com) is the author of The Insider: A True Story (Llumina Press, 2005) and Black Ice: The Invisible Threat of Cyber-Terrorism (McGraw-Hill Osborne Media, 2003). He is a former intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and a former Computerworld senior writer.