Is Google a knight in shining armor or a sellout? The stack of Sub Pop Records CDs sitting on my shelves at home pushes me toward the latter moniker. But my daily reliance on Google's search engine pulls me toward the former.
It's a tough call, and it makes me think that Aristotle was on to something when he argued for a golden mean between two extremes.
For nearly four years, Google has been trying to find that golden mean in China, to varying degrees of success, approbation, and condemnation. The most recent development in the Google-Chinese tryst is Google's decision to stop redirecting mainland Chinese internet users to its uncensored Hong Kong site. Google first decided to reroute its users to Hong Kong in an effort to beat back Chinese censorship, but appears to be changing course as it seeks approval from Beijing to renew its operating license.
Again with the vacillation between internet freedom fighter and shameless sellout! But we shouldn't be surprised, and we shouldn't be angry. Officials at Google do seem to have genuine ethical qualms with doing business in China. But hey, business is business. If you're not making a buck, you're doing something wrong. Right?
Yes and no. As crass as the profit-motive can be at times, it's important to keep in mind that not all profit-motives are created equal. Just think about oil companies. They all want to maximize profits, but it appears BP went much further than its competitors in cutting corners on safety to make those profits. We all know how that worked out.
The reason this is relevant when it comes to Google is that Google isn't God - it's got competitors. If Google isn't willing to tolerate a certain level of censorship in countries like China - while also figuring out ways to get around that censorship and keep communications open - then it's entirely likely that competitors with no ethical qualms whatsoever will happily step in. And that could make things much worse.
But really, the Google-China saga is just one part of the larger story about the way technology is infiltrating our lives in ways we never imagined, creating new opportunities and begetting new challenges along the way. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat about this on Brian Reich's Thinking About Everything, where I joined Jim Arkedis of the Progressive Policy Institute and Joel Rubin of National Security Network for a discussion on "Foreign Policy in the Digital Age."
And while we weren't able to deliver a definitive answer on Google in China - and what the exact role of the US government should be on questions of internet freedom abroad - we were able to sketch out some of the ups, downs, and inevitable changes that new technology is bringing our way. Click here for a listen.