Most presidential hopefuls who show up at the so-called Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., praise their hosts and marvel at the company's search technology.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Democrat and presidential long shot, took a different approach this week, saying during his visit Monday that the company should pull the plug on its China search engine at Google.cn. I'm sure it went over about as well as Barack Obama's enthusiastic endorsement of more aggressive antitrust enforcement during his visit to the 'plex--not exactly an applause line for employees of a company undergoing serious antitrust scrutiny in the United States and Europe.
Google launched Google.cn last year, acknowledging that the results would be censored by decree of China's Communist government--but at least clearly disclosing to users that the results were modified. That's better than having Google.com regularly blocked by the Chinese firewall, the company argued at the time, while congressional critics were hardly convinced.
Here are excerpts from Dodd's speech:
If you believe that the Googles of the world can serve as a democratizing force and expand freedoms--after what we have seen in the wake of 9/11, with the sheer amount of information you have, we would be fools to not also believe the other side of that equation: that such power can also take those freedoms away...
It is what you have been criticized for doing in your China venture, Google.cn, which was built to expressly censor subjects the Chinese government deemed controversial.
And it is what you are currently being accused of doing, in assisting the Israeli government with identifying a citizen who made allegations against three members of the Shaarei Tikva Council posted on your Blogger service...
And you can start with this: By telling the Chinese government that Google.cn will no longer censor information with Google's consent. And should the Chinese government not find that acceptable, Google.cn will be shut down.
Is this good advice? Because there's no really perfect answer, it's hard to say. If Google continues to operate Google.cn, it is complying with laws that are unjust and do violence to human liberty.
But if the search company shuts down Google.cn, then China Internet users will simply end up at local rival Baidu.com, which doesn't even alert users that the results have been censored. (There are recent reports saying China already is redirecting traffic to Baidu from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo.)
I suspect Dodd's recommendation might be more compelling if he were consistent and advised Google to "shut down" in countries like France and Germany, where search results that would be legal in the United States also are censored by government edict. But Dodd didn't, so it's fair to ask whether he's sincere, or whether it's simply an excuse to assail the Chinese government on populist and protectionist grounds--Dodd has, after all, been accusing the Chinese of "currency manipulation."
One more related thought: To be fair to Dodd, and this came up in his speech as well, he has taken a principled stand on the question of retroactive immunity for companies like AT&T that have been sued for allegedly opening their networks to the National Security Agency in violation of federal privacy law. Dodd has pledged to block retroactive immunity through placing a "hold" on any Senate legislation or through a filibuster.
(Disclosure: Declan McCullagh is married to a Google employee.)