Google v. China: Principled, Brave, or Business As Usual?

Google has made good on its threat to close its China-based search service in response to state censorship and hacker intrusions. The response in the U.S. is predictable. Nicholas D. Kristof set the tone last January, when he wrote that "Google's decision to stand up to Chinese cyberoppression [is] positively breathtaking." "Google's decision to stop censoring its search service in China," declares the New York Times, "was a principled and brave decision."

The human rights framing of this issue works powerfully as rhetoric. Resistance to state censorship in the cause of democracy evinces a long and noble history, and China has built an intricate and technologically advanced censorship system. The issues at stake here, however, are not well captured by this Internet-as-human-rights rhetoric, which pits a corporate freedom-fighter against an authoritarian state. Google executives themselves suggest that economic issues are also central: Internet censorship, declares Google's Director of Public Policy, "creates significant barriers for U.S. companies doing business abroad....Barriers to the free flow of information online have significant and serious economic implications: they impose often one-sided restrictions on the services of U.S. and global Internet companies, while also impeding other businesses who depend on the Internet to reach their customers" "It is good for our business to push for free expression," states Google's chief legal officer.

The "free flow of information" doctrine is not new: it has served as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy since WWII. "Free flow" paints hard-edged economic and strategic interests in an appealing, but essentially misleading, language of universal human rights. It portrays freedom for corporations to invest in foreign lands and for US media companies to drench the world in American cultural commodities as "peoples speaking to peoples" -- to use rhetoric current during the 1940s. The arrival of the Internet evidently does nothing to alter this.

Around the Internet are arrayed a stunning number of transnational market leaders based in the US: In desktop software, Microsoft; in microelectronics, Intel; in Internet plumbing, Cisco; in mobile appliances and related media applications, Apple; in social networking, Facebook and Twitter; in E-commerce eBay and Amazon; and, of course, in search -- Google.

While these corporations control markets in countries around the globe, the single major exception is the PRC. For the fact is, that China has not permitted its national market to become integrated into an extraterritorial system that is dominated by the United States.

China's central-state authority has been directed, rather, to claiming its explosively expanding domestic market for homegrown companies. This is called import-substitution and it is the way to understand Google's China conflict and the conflicts to come. Akin to those policies adopted in earlier decades by Korea, Japan and, indeed, the United States itself, China's import-substitution program has begun to succeed.

The second largest domain name after .com is .cn; fully 80% of China's 16.3 million domain names end in .cn. An astonishing build-up of domestic telecom equipment manufacturers has been coupled to successful efforts to forestall China's giant network operators -- Mobile, Telecom and Unicom -- from accepting more than nominal investment by foreign interests. Not eBay, the world's largest auction site, but Jack Ma's Alibaba, operates China's largest online marketplace. Google has 80% of the US search market, and 90% of the European search market - but only a still-substantial 30+% of China's search market, half that of China's own Baidu. As the Financial Times reported (3/24/10, p. 2), "the Chinese authorities had no intention of allowing [Google] to assume the sort of market dominance it enjoys in many other countries around the world."

Import-substitution may be a launch-pad to transnational market expansion for Chinese suppliers. Certainly, there are already unmistakable signs that this too is deliberate. Alibaba is beginning to transnationalize, while Huawei and ZTE are now competing effectively with network infrastructure vendors worldwide.

On the U.S. side, the significant fact is not that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has again invoked the longstanding US rhetoric -- now recast as "internet freedom" -- as the touchstone of official policy. It is that Google has concluded that it must turn to the U.S. state (WSJ 3/25/10 p. A15), to "deepen the government's role in advancing free expression on the internet globally." Evidently, on both sides of the Pacific, corporations and governments collaborate in pursuit of profit-making.

The geopolitics of the Internet are breaking out into the open. Not only China's political-economic ambitions, but likewise those of the United States, signal increasingly pointed conflicts ahead.