China vs. the Internet

You go, Go Daddy. Like Google Inc., the leading registrar of Internet domain names is pushing back against Chinese censorship, announcing Wednesday that it will stop selling domain names based in China. The company says the Chinese government demanded that it identify its customers, a clearly unacceptable requirement that would have allowed officials not just to block sites they didn’t like but to go after the owners. Rival domain registrar Network Solutions said it has pulled out of China for the same reason.

Their actions follow Google’s bold decision to stop censoring its sites in China and leave the world’s largest Internet market after a four-year experiment there, redirecting users in China to its uncensored search engine based in Hong Kong. Even if users on the mainland go to the Hong Kong site, they still face censorship, but at least it will be clear that the censor in chief is Beijing and not Google. The Chinese government has retaliated for Google’s pullout with a blistering and nationalistic attack against the company and, apparently, pressure on its mainland partners to sever ties.

These are difficult decisions for Web companies that come not only at a high financial cost but at a high price for Chinese Internet users. No U.S. company censors to the degree the Chinese government does, so to leave China is to abandon Chinese consumers. And yet Google had no choice following what appeared to be government efforts to hack into its site and the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

We don’t know what kind of censorship Microsoft might have been subjected to, or whether a move out of China is warranted in its case, but we do think the company needs to say more about its China policy than it has to date. This no longer can be seen as a battle of the Titans -- Google versus the Chinese Communist Party. Google, Go Daddy and Network Solutions need the backing of other Web companies so this issue cannot be portrayed by China as the U.S. government trying to tell it what to do.

Admittedly, the chances of altering China’s behavior are slim. The government is determined to censor the Internet in its efforts to stifle dissent. Some critics argue that China may have driven Google out because it posed a competitive threat to state-owned businesses. But digital goods and information are the growth engines of the global economy. The free and rapid flow of information is speeding innovation and generating new forms of commerce. China is taking a risk in driving out the world’s leading Internet companies. Isolation may help the Communist Party hang on to power, but it endangers the economic expansion that makes China a top global competitor.