Google, the media giant that makes its money by running the most successful Internet search engine on earth, has its fans, but I have never been one of them. True, as Google labored to meet an endless succession of new online needs and has gotten unimaginably rich in the process, I have at times watched with admiration and awe.
But I'm uneasy about Google's enormous size, and I disapprove of a business that brings in $24 billion a year for stocking its shelves with products it does nothing to create and pays almost nothing for.
Above all, I mistrust its vast, unaccountable, informational power: Google determines what hundreds of millions of people worldwide learn about any given subject, and it bases those determinations on formulas that are as secret as Coca-Cola's and less fathomable than the assembly guide for a neutron bomb.
Add to that an innate skepticism that any powerful institution might take a major action out of mere principle, and the result is shock, real shock, over Google's announcement that it's pulling its core operations out of China rather than continuing to submit to Chinese government demands that Google censor the search results it provides the Chinese public.
Now, Google is a distant second there to Baidu, a homegrown search engine, and gets no more than 2.5 percent of its worldwide revenue from its China operations. Still, this is China, the world's most populous country. Its estimated 384 million Internet users outnumber the entire U.S. population. Walking away from a frenetically expanding market of that scale, especially if you're a company with a history of aggressive growth, couldn't be easy.
But last week that's what Google did, when it declared that it would stop censoring search results and move its operations to Hong Kong, which retains some measure of independence from China's central authorities.
Google professes to believe that the Chinese public will be able to access its uncensored Hong Kong-based search engine from the mainland, and Google officials insist it may hang on to its indispensable local partners so it can continue developing mobile operations and other affiliated businesses. Moreover, its top lawyer told The New York Times, "It is good for our business to push for free expression."
But to me he was whistling past the graveyard. This brilliantly successful company has taken a step that's utterly incompatible with its brilliant success.
Chinese authorities are embarrassed and angered by Google's pull-out, and local business people aren't eager to cross them. As Bloomberg News quoted one Hong Kong-based analyst, "If you were partnering with Google in China, your business plans have just fallen apart."
That downbeat assessment seems consistent with the thinking of Google's main U.S. rivals. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates reportedly told ABC News: "You've got to decide: Do you want to obey the laws of the countries you are in, or not? If not, you may not end up doing business there." Microsoft's Bing search engine hasn't stopped censoring its results in China, according to The Times.
So why is Google pulling out? I don't know. But I'm willing to accept the company's explanation that it no longer wanted to be in the business of deliberately and needlessly keeping people ignorant -- specifically, withholding important information from ordinary Chinese who come to Google expecting help finding it, and doing so just because their government decreed these were matters they should not learn about.
Fine, countries are entitled to their taboos. Some places in Europe prohibit Nazi-themed sites, and just because our free-speech practices tolerate them we'd be wrong to demand they be accepted by countries where they're forbidden. The British prohibit covering ongoing criminal cases in the press because they fear publicity will taint their proceedings. The United States has strict child porn laws, and authorities here wouldn't let foreign sites decide the U.S. public has an inalienable right to their smut simply because their homelands set the age of consent at 12.
But China wants leading U.S. information companies to help embargo its own history. It wants "Tiananmen Square 1989" to yield a tourist brochure, not photos of murdered democracy activists. It wants "Tibet" to return soothing pictures of a snow-capped paradise, not images of military occupation.
Above all, it wants the complicity of renowned U.S. Internet companies in normalizing censorship, in bestowing upon an archaic and tottering edifice of forced ignorance a patina of international acceptance. It wants foreign help in continuing to deny its people civic freedoms comparable to the economic freedoms it has lavished on its capitalists. Google, to its shame, played along for the past four years.
Now, to its great credit, it has said no more.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.