Google's Quixotic China Challenge

Google (GOOG) is stepping up a campaign to get other companies and the U.S. government to join it in putting pressure on China's government over alleged human-rights violations. The Web search company may make limited headway.

Following a decision to stop censoring search results in China, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in a Mar. 25 interview with the U.K. newspaper The Guardian that the U.S. government and other businesses should put a "high priority" on calling attention to human-rights abuses in China.

While one company did just that and some U.S. government officials have championed Google's cause, there's unlikely to be a groundswell of businesses willing to take public issue with China, the world's most populous country and third-largest economy. "Just because the situation got bad for you doesn't mean it's bad for everybody else," says Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the Web site Search Engine Land.

On Mar. 22, Google said it had stopped censoring its Chinese Web site and shifted search services from the mainland to an unfiltered Hong Kong site, an act criticized as "totally wrong" by China. Google said on Jan. 12 it was no longer willing to censor content on its Chinese site after being targeted by cyber attacks from within China. Hackers obtained proprietary information and e-mail data of some human-rights activists in a "highly sophisticated attack," the company said at the time.

Crossroads for Internet Companies

The standoff provoked global debate about how Internet businesses should operate in a country with a questionable record of protecting the online privacy and freedom of expression of its citizens. "A lot of businesses around the world are now realizing they have to think through and figure out how to respond to these kinds of controls—not just in China but in other parts of the world," says Ed Black, CEO of the Computer & Communications Industry Assn. "What Google has done is made them realize they may be facing a fork in the road that they better start planning for."

Two days after Google's withdrawal, Internet domain registrar announced it had stopped selling new Web domain names in China, citing dismay with government policies it says are designed to tighten control over Internet use by residents. "We don't want to be an agent for the Chinese government," says Christine Jones, Go Daddy's general counsel.

Some politicians applauded Google's move. "Google, more than any other business or force, has been the game-changer," says Representative Chris Smith (R-N.J.) in an interview. Smith and other U.S. officials are pushing for new policies that would see the U.S. government play a role in ensuring the protection of American Internet businesses in China and other countries.

In remarks in January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Beijing to investigate the hacking attacks that affected Google. "Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation," she said during a public speech at the Newseum.

How Much to Push Back?

It's not clear that condemnation will emanate from corporations. "How far are [companies] willing to go?" asks Leslie Harris, president of the Washington nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology. "How much are they willing to push back and what steps are they willing to take to try to mitigate the human-rights impact to their users?"

Seeking to help provide businesses a template for addressing these problems, Harris and others formed the Global Network Initiative (GNI) in 2008, a coalition of major U.S. Internet businesses like Google, Microsoft (MSFT), and Yahoo (YHOO), as well as think tanks and universities. The group meets periodically to draft and update guidelines on what procedures to take when, for example, foreign governments ask for sensitive information about users.

Yet when it comes to publicly upbraiding the Chinese, other companies may be less willing to cooperate. Google approached other companies to seek their help drawing attention to the cyber attack and was frustrated by their reluctance to come forward, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News in January.

Representative Smith says the government should play a bigger role in calling out foreign countries that restrict access to the Web. Four years ago, he drafted the Global Online Freedom Act, legislation that would, among other provisions, require the U.S. State Dept. to issue an annual list of "Internet restricting countries," and require American companies to notify the State Dept. before complying with requests from foreign governments.

The bill is supported by Google, Smith says. The question now is whether other companies can get behind getting tough on China.

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