What did Google really expect?

Google’s idealistic view of information and how it should be used has always been in conflict with the prevailing political philosophy of the Chinese government.

No one should be shocked that the Chinese government has broken into the Google accounts of pro-democracy dissidents. By all means be outraged or indignant but not shocked, surely. China is exposed time and again for human rights abuses, so breaking into Google accounts of those that its government see as acting illegally has never been beyond the realm of possibility or predictability.

US president Barack Obama said repeatedly during his election campaign that American (and global) corporations and individuals were vulnerable to cyber attacks. He won’t bang on about that so much now, as his government needs to conjure up a political response to this mess and maintain business confidence both in the internet and the West’s ongoing relations with Beijing.

The response of Google, and its chief legal officer David Drummond, has been naïve to say the least. The threat to pull out of China is shrill. If it really believes in access to information for all, then it needs to stay the course.

Some commentators, especially a handful of editorials in the emerging economies of Asia and the Middle East, see this as China enforcing its censorship regime. Censorship is not seen as such an evil in these parts. Many editors in the Middle East and Asia recognise it as necessary to help maintain an economic-political harmony. Even in the West, including Australia, our governments don’t mind a bit of censorship and information control when it suits them – no matter how much it riles journalists.

What has happened with Google in China is not censorship but political suppression. When News Corporation boss Rupert Murdoch stated famously that the Internet would bring democracy to all corners of the planet, he was referring to the ability of publishers to share their journalism and principals of political accountability that would result in the erosion of totalitarian regimes.

The impact of the Internet is difficult and it is social media applications, rather than access to a foreign, free press, that appears more threatening to those who hold power with iron fists. Social media allows individuals and groups to communicate in ways such governments cannot control. Google’s Gmail is one method but not a particularly efficient one.  More powerful are Twitter and Facebook. The Iranian riots to protest last June’s presidential election result were organised and co-ordinate in real time by messages on Facebook and Twitter. The same technologies have been used for protests at the G20 and the joke of a climate summit in Copenhagen.

YouTube, owned by Google, brings pictures to the world that conventional media cannot provide in censored environments.

If Google is as concerned about the democratic access to information as it says, it needs to work from the inside in China.

Grand statements of indignation might make the search engine folks feel better, but it will do little for dissidents in China who risk their lives in the belief that access to information, a free press and new communication tools are vital for the progress of democracy.

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