- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

With a company motto “Don’t be evil,” Google is learning what it’s like to operate in a world market where evil is ubiquitous. The news that the information giant will cooperate with Chinese censorship laws has been met with varied response, some of it pretty feverish. On the one hand, there are the purists who criticize Google for abetting a totalitarian regime. Then again, those we’ll call the realists counter that the Chinese people will be far better off with any net increase in information and communication.

With a couple of caveats we will address in a moment, the realists have the stronger argument. To “google” something is not only to learn about it, but to take a user into the belly of an information free-for-all, connecting Internet users to previously unimagined amounts of data — much of it totally useless. But the breadth of information out there, in tandem with the ever-improving technology to promulgate and access it, make oppressive Chinese censorship laws an artifact of a bygone age. In some cases, such as cell phones, Chinese citizens already have the tools to learn about a news event before the government even has time to censor it. On the Net, the balance between bureaucratic censorship minions and millions of Chinese users will shift, if it hasn’t already. There’s simply no way for one to maintain pace with the other. A great example is that there are ways — which Google obviously won’t publicize — for tech-savvy Chinese to circumvent the censorship firewall.

Even more important, perhaps, at least as it concerns the Chinese people, is that Google connects users to each other. Ninety million Chinese Internet users finding each other online is a greater danger to the control of the Chinese Communist Party than a user who “googles” the “Republic of China” finding references to Taiwan. While the Chinese government can control the latter, it cannot stop people from accessing the Internet without doing severe damage to its growing economy.

Ironically, that’s exactly why the Chinese government wants Google: to continue its economic expansion. Google connects consumers to suppliers, which raises our first caveat. Google might have had a stronger hand to play during negotiations with the Chinese — but the truth is we simply don’t know. We can only trust that Google got the best deal it could and hope that it will continue pressing its advantage in the future. Our other caveat is that Google must maintain independent control of its search data, and resist becoming an even more willing partner in Chinese oppression. It made the right decision by withholding its e-mail system, gmail.com, because of fears the Chinese government would demand users’ records.

That’s not to say Google couldn’t stand to tone down its moral posturing, especially today, when company representatives from Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! testify before a House subcommittee. We hope Google has learned from this experience that a motto of “Don’t be evil” invites unfair standards of behavior.

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