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Tech Industry

Collaborators at Google--and beyond

CNET's Charles Cooper says the tech industry should move beyond its take-it or leave-it approach to trade and human rights.

Here's a revelation: The boy billionaires running Google put pragmatism ahead of principle to avoid a dustup with the government in China. I know you're shocked--shocked!--to hear that the world's most famous search engine company would actually kowtow to a repressive regime over the sticky wicket that is Web censorship. But give co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin credit for hard-boiled realism. They know that free speech doesn't pay the bills.

"I didn't think I would come to this conclusion--but eventually I came to the conclusion that more information is better, even if it is not as full as we would like to see," Brin told Reuters at the World Economic Forum.

The problem goes a lot deeper than not living up to a promise that never was worth anything.

In other words, half a loaf was better than none and pragmatism produces profit. (Left unanswered is what would principle earn you?) The agreement allows the company to continue operating its China search site. The quid pro quo: Google can't offer e-mail, chat or blog publishing services--and it will block politically sensitive terms.

To be sure, this was not Google's finest hour. But let's resist the opportunity to tweak Page and Brin for their sappy "Do No Evil" pledge when the company went public. That's too easy. (Square Google's China policy with the pledge on its English Help Center page that "it's our policy not to police or censor content.") The problem goes a lot deeper than failing to live up to a dubious promise. The bigger issue is why not a peep out of the larger Silicon Valley community?

Sorry to say, but nearly every other computer or Internet company also would have taken the deal, no questions asked. When it comes to China, too much money is involved. By now, free-speech and human rights campaigners barely register real surprise when the technology industry willingly collaborates with Beijing.

Appeasement translates into shareholder value.

Just this month, Microsoft acknowledged bouncing a blog written by an outspoken Chinese journalist from its MSN Spaces site, saying the company was only conforming with local laws. What's more, in 2005 the company agreed to censor words like "freedom" and "democracy" from its Chinese MSN portal site. (I'd like to see Microsoft's house blogger Robert Scoble tackle that one.)

And let's not forget the notorious case of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for supposedly leaking state secrets. Reporters Without Borders said Yahoo turned over information that local authorities used to trace the message to Shi Tao's e-mail account and computer. At the time, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang said he wasn't fond of the outcome "but we have to follow the law."

When it comes down to take it or leave it, appeasement translates into shareholder value. No one from among our celestial constellations of high-tech luminaries is going to stick out his or her necks and play hero--not when their nearest competitor is ready to immediately fill any resulting vacuum.

Since nobody's willing to take the first step, tech companies might instead try adopting a set of industrywide guidelines. This idea has been circulating for a while, and business trade groups like TechNet or the Information Technology Association of America have the industry contacts to make it happen. At the very least, this document can be a jumping-off point for discussions with governments that have notions of human rights and free speech at odds with ours.

Let's not be naive and believe these regimes won't still do what they view to be in their national interests. But every journey starts with small steps.