Yesterday a crew ambled into my FM offices from ABC News, setting up quite an array of lights and equipment to shoot an interview. The topic was Google and China. Now, I’m a veteran of these situations, as is my staff, and fortunately the commotion was limited to my office, and the 45 minutes or so of set up happened while many of us were in a meeting.
When they were ready, I sat down for the conversation and enjoyed my talk with the producer, who was piped in via mobile phone. We talked about many of the nuanced issues involved in this particular story. The crew in the room with me also seemed keen to have an informed dialog. I sensed the piece would be pretty intelligent.
But….instead of nuance, we get a story framed as “a battle of titans” – Google v. China, the death match! “Game on!” is how Diane Sawyer opened the piece. “Who will fire the next shot?!” the reporter asks in conclusion. I’m quoted somewhere in the middle, saying that China employs a large number of Internet police, a well-known fact that I mentioned more as a set up to another point. It all begs the question of why they bothered sending the crew in the first place, but …. at least the major networks are paying attention to the story.
And in a way, that’s really the story here. A private company has pushed a very public and political issue into the minds of several significant constituencies. First and foremost, Google’s move has forced China’s hand, and given those inside the country who may disagree with China’s own policies a clear example of their own leadership’s shortcomings. As the NYT points out today:
China also does not acknowledge to its own people that it censors the Internet to exclude a wide range of political and social topics that its leaders believe could lead to instability. It does not release information on the number of censors it employs or the technology it uses for the world’s most sophisticated Internet firewall. Its 350 million Internet users, many with fast broadband connections, are assured they have the same effectively limitless access to information and communications that the rest of the world enjoys.
Google publicly challenged that stance in January, and reinforced its ideological opposition to China’s policies by finally pulling the plug on its mainland search engine after a failed round of talks with Chinese officials. That forced Chinese leaders to defend their control of the Web…
Thanks to Google’s move, thousands, if not millions, of Chinese now understand the extend to which their own government has been duping them. And those who already knew have a new ally, and perhaps additional courage to continue change from within.
A second significant constituency is the US public. To my mind the US has been lured into complacency about China, forgiving China’s violation of core human rights as a cultural matter best swept under the rug. The main reason? Business! Profit! Huge markets! (Oh, and the massive number of US dollars now controlled by our pals in Beijing). It’s a classic conflict of American values: We are society built on freedom of speech and religion, both of which are brutally controlled by the Chinese government. But we are also a society built on capitalism and the profit motive. It’s clear which one had won in the court of US public opinion – until Google made a decision which forced all of us to think about it in a new light.
A third constituency, related to the first two, are the governments of both the US and China, as well as the executives who run major corporations based in the US. As public awareness and opinion unfolds in both countries, I can imagine shifts in both policy as well as practice in both public and private spheres. We now have an administration whose reflexive approach to China’s moral conflict with American values isn’t to sweep it under the rug, for one.
And if you are running a company that competes with Google in the US, chances are you find yourself in a pretty uncomfortable place this morning – answering to employees, shareholders, and consumers this question: Why can Google practice a values-based approach to business, but you cannot?
Come to think of it, that’s a question that the US government should be asked as well. And inside the government, you can bet it’s already come up.
Meanwhile, news breaks today that Google’s main site was hacked, with its management bio page turned into Chinese characters (see image at left). Hmmm. Petty retaliation? I doubt it. But yet another strange twist to an ongoing tale.
The broadcast is here, you can watch the piece starting at around 9.15. I tried to use Hulu’s vaunted sharing features to embed just a clip, but the company seems to have caved to the TV overlords and disabled it. That’ll be a subject of another rant.