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Google’s China problem

When Google set up shop in China four years ago, it made a trade-off that threatened to run afoul of its “Don’t be evil” motto. The company created a new version of its site -- Google.cn -- that would be operated from servers inside China, making it more accessible to Internet users there. But in deference to a government demand, Google agreed to suppress search results from Web pages disfavored by the government. It argued at the time that the new site would do more good than harm; as a company spokesman told a congressional panel in early 2006, “Even with content restrictions, a fast and reliable Google.cn is more likely to expand Chinese users’ access to information.”

This week, Google acknowledged that it might have overestimated the merits of cooperating with the Chinese government, and pledged to stop censoring Google.cn. The decision is likely to trigger its ouster from China, leaving Internet users there with sporadic access at best to Google’s search engine. The decision came in the wake of a series of disturbing assaults on Google and more than 30 other companies’ sites that apparently were aimed at stealing corporate secrets and penetrating the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Although the assaults on Gmail were not successful, Google found during its investigation that undisclosed individuals had been surveilling dozens of activists’ e-mail accounts in China, the U.S. and Europe. Google didn’t identify any suspects behind the intrusions, but its comments and other reports clearly implicated the Beijing government.

Some skeptics suggested that the attacks were merely a pretext and that Google will either make peace with the regime or withdraw from China for other reasons (such as its limited market share). It could hardly come as a surprise to Google that the Chinese government invades people’s privacy to maintain its power. And although it’s true that there’s been an intensified crackdown on speech and dissent recently, it’s not as if the regime became repressive overnight.

Yet the rationale for providing a censored search engine has never been morally compelling, and there’s even less justification now for Google to get in bed with the regime. dissentWhen it disclosed the theft of its intellectual property and the attacks on Gmail users around the world, the company all but accused the Chinese government of stabbing it in the back. It can’t continue to pretend that this regime is a partner it can work with. And make no mistake, Google’s deal with China is a partnership to censor the Net. If Google can’t persuade China to let it operate an unfiltered search engine there, it should pack up its servers and go home.


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