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Google Did the Right Thing by Getting Off Its High Censorship Horse in China

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Google’s operation in China last month quietly removed a feature that informed users when a search term was a censored term that would break their connection to Google, and removed a help page that explained the feature and offered tips on how to maintain the connection. Not surprisingly, the move has drawn an indignant outcry from anti-censorship activists who are chastising Google for caving in to Chinese authorities. In truth, Google did the right thing.

The development was reported last week by Greatfire.org, a website that monitors Internet censorship in China, with the goal of “bringing transparency to the Great Firewall of China.” The site faulted Google for buckling under pressure: “This latest move was fully controlled by Google and can as such only be described as self-censorship.”

Wrong. That’s not the only way it can be described. I would describe it as a foreign company deciding not to try to circumvent the laws of the country it’s operating in.

We in America don’t like it when foreign companies come in and try to circumvent the laws of our country. We don’t like it when Chinese and Indian companies abuse the H-1B visa program and violate our immigration and tax laws. And yet we seem to have no problem with abusing the policies and violating the laws of the host countries we operate in, as long as we feel we have the moral prerogative to do so.

I have long argued that it’s not our place to say what should and should not be censored in another sovereign nation. That’s not for us to decide, just as it’s not up to other countries to decide what should and should not be censored here.

I expressed this view back in 2006, when Google entered China and was immediately berated for abiding by China’s censorship laws. Here’s an excerpt from a Computerworld editorial I wrote at the time:

You and I want every Chinese citizen to be able to read about the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Falun Gong and the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government disagrees. Who should make the call? U.S. Internet companies? The U.S. government?

We need to get it through our thick, self-righteous heads that it's not our call. Too many of us in the U.S. are taking the position that we should fight censorship, unless it's censorship that we happen to agree with. We need to realize that the hypocrisy of that perspective is lost on no one, including the Chinese people.

[There was a recent report in] the China Business Times that was critical of Google for raising the censorship issue in the first place. The paper said Google is like "an uninvited guest" telling a dinner host "the dishes don't suit his taste, but he's willing to eat them as a show of respect to the host."

Yes, I'm very much aware that China's newspapers are government-controlled. But if you think that sentiment doesn't reflect the way the laobaixing (common people) approach these sorts of things, you don't know China. Don't think for a heartbeat that the generality of the Chinese people wants foreigners coming in and breaking Chinese laws or undermining positions taken by China's government. They may not be crazy about everything their government does, just as we're not crazy about everything ours does. But it's theirs, and they're every bit as proud and patriotic as we are.

So the answer for Google and other U.S. companies operating in China does not lie in arrogantly trying to circumvent Chinese law. If we want to operate in China, we need to be willing to abide by Chinese laws, whether we agree with them or not, just as we expect foreign companies operating in our country to abide by our laws, whether they agree with them or not.

The answer to the China censorship question lies in the establishment of a foundation of mutual respect and the construction of a trusted relationship over the long term. The United States and China have learned a lot from each other, and we have a lot more yet to learn. If we want the people of China to enjoy more of the rights that we enjoy in this country, we need to accept that self-righteousness will only impede that noble quest.

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