Google is putting its profits and growth on the line to stand up to China's authoritartian practices. Whatever we might suspect about its motives, the company deserves applause for that. Maybe now it can lead an allied, anti-repression tech force.
For decades now, the corporate and political consensus in the U.S. has been that if America did more business with China, freedom would somehow follow. Despite early evidence to the contrary, this formulation gained further traction with the spread of the internet, one of the most powerful forces against the authoritarian state; big tech companies eagerly embraced the idea that, by working with a repressive regime, they could ultimately help bring freedom to hundreds of millions of people.
After years of following this same reasoning, censoring search results to secure a foothold in China, Google has finally come along and acknowledged how little China has changed, exposing in a corporate blog post the extensive threat posed by nationalistic Chinese hackers and saying it will leave the country if it can't publish uncensored search results.
Bravo. Google just had its best-ever quarter in China and relies on China-based engineers for global programming tasks, so this would be no small sacrifice.
But it needn't to cast aside 1990s-brand techno-optimism entirely. Google could embrace its position as the leading corporate voice that's critical of China:
- Sponsor a 20% time employee project to allow Chinese internet users to route around the Great Firewall with greater reliability than ever before.
- Create a Google-sponsored force of gray-hat hackers to oppose the efforts of Chinese hackers, primarily through defensive means. They would work to defend not only Google users but others, as well.
- Publicly detail all threats to non-Chinese computer users from China's hackers, after the operators of the targeted systems have had ample warning time. After all, Google discovered while investigating Chinese attacks on its own users that "at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses—including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors—have been similarly targeted."
- Work with similarly-minded tech companies (if any) to craft a concrete national policy proposal to address the issues the recent attacks have uncovered. Google and DC-bred CEO Eric Schmidt have already become a growing force in Washington.
That's just off the top of our heads. The specifics of Google's actions are less important than that the company takes some additional steps. There's no better way for Google to prove that is change of heart on China is rooted in sincere moral convictions rather than cynical business and security calculations.
(Pic: Schmidt, from his Twitter account and likely taken during his November trip to Iraq.)