I've been watching this story for a while, but waiting to blog it until the initial frenzy settled down.
China, a country with a well-documented history of human rights abuses, has imposed some strict censorship rules on its citizens' access to the Internet. China is, simultaneously, under pressure to adopt more democratic political processes. And, of significant interest to companies around the world, China's move toward a market-driven economy has created an opportunity for buying goods from, and selling them to, an enormous population.
That's a complicated mix.
Google, deep in the Internet, has apparently cooperated with Chinese authorities in their censorship of Internet content. That's unfortunate, and is at least a partial repudiation of the company's professed motto, "Don't be evil."
There has been widespread and vocal opposition to Google and to its censorship. Some of the loudest outrage has come from the US Congress, which has criticized the company for "bowing to Beijing."
I'm a believer in the power of the market to effect social change. I was at Berkeley when the movement to divest the University of its holdings in South Africa spread among public and private institutions. That pressure, along with political and other social pressure, eventually led the the dismantling of apartheid as an official policy of the country. Businesses certainly have influence, and ought to use it to advance human rights when they can.
It's unreasonable, though, to expect a business to behave altruistically all the time. This is especially true when other institutions aren't leading the way. There was already plenty of pressure, by ambassadors and individuals, to eliminate apartheid before the divestiture movement began. Businesses supported that pressure, but didn't initiate it.
Google has defended -- or at least explained -- its behavior. I hope that it will do better in the future. I hope that it will help to eliminate censorship and restriction of rights around the world. It has enormous power to do that.
But if there is to be a world-wide movement to eliminate Chinese censorship, it must include the policymakers and governing bodies that wield much more influence than any single company. The US has an enormous trade imbalance with China. We ship lots of raw materials there, and buy back lots of low-cost finished goods. That direct economic support is good for the Chinese people, certainly, but also helps to support the Beijing government.
Congress' demand of Google was, essentially, that it regulate its behavior in China. If Congress expects individual companies to put economic pressure on China, it should show the way. If the regulation of trade is to be a solution, then governments, as well as corporations, need to show how.
Outrage from the floor of the House and Senate are good television, but pointless for directing real change. Asking the private sector to lead the way on a public issue like human rights makes no sense. Sure, let's ask Google to behave better next time. But let's show them how to do it, instead of telling them.