Over the past week, a pivotal standoff has been occurring between the world’s largest archiver of information and the world’s largest censor of information.
The Google vs. China conflict has been gaining momentum recently, and it has all come to a head in the last few days over alleged hacker attacks on human rights activists email accounts – with Google refusing to censor its findings within China for a few days, and even talk of the company removing its enterprise from the country altogether.
What’s interesting to some is that the US government is not at the forefront of this freedom of information conflict; choosing instead to tread very softly so as not to cause political insult or difficulty. Google, on the other hand, is coming out with all fists swinging – determined to send a message to the Chinese government that it cannot continue to act in such an isolationist and controlling manner whilst still maintaining the services and products of corporations such as the information technology giant.
China has always been known for its stringent censorship policy when it comes to the internet, however it seems to be stepping up attempts to ensure that it maintains control over the information its citizens have access to. Elements within the Chinese government that are worried about anti-Chinese sentiment are said to be gravely concerned about the influential role that the internet can play in spreading such political ideology. Some commentators are highlighting that this is leading to a paradoxical conflict between China’s increasingly central role within the global economy and its continued disengagement from the global information network.
But with Google’s line now drawn in the sand – a move which is not just affecting its famous search-engine, but also indefinitely delaying the launch of Android based mobile phones amongst other things - it seems like the long-running criticism of China’s approach to the internet is at a deciding crossroads.
Although the outcome of this is hard to determine, it is difficult to imagine that China will back down to any significant degree when it comes to internet censorship. For one thing, the country’s economy has developed to a degree that some within the government may decide that they just don’t need what external corporations are offering. If this is decided, even a company as influential and pivotal as Google would hold little sway in changing policy.
So what happens if Google does decide to abandon China? Well, that depends on your perspective on things. Undoubtedly there will be other companies willing to come in and pick up the market share – some are arguing that one of the big winners in this conflict could be Microsoft with Bing. For the general user, there likely won’t be much of a noticeable difference to begin with. China’s internet users have long been segregated from the rest of the global internet community, and have built up their own online culture and usage patterns accordingly. Likewise – often because of the language barrier – most non-Chinese users spend little time on sites created specifically for the Chinese market.
We very well could see the creation of a second internet – or an incredibly large intranet, if you will – that isolates China from the rest of the ‘world wide web’. This conflict could also be the beginning of some truly paradigm shifting changes as to how the internet is used and maintained globally. Not only that, but it could also be indicative of possible further isolationist practices by the Chinese government, who may just – possibly quite correctly – come to the conclusion that China does not need the global economy as much as the global economy needs China.
Whatever the outcome, this is a battle that must be watched very closely – because it seems to me that it is a conflict surrounding ideas that lie at the very core of the future global society, and the paths taken by the many different parties involved could have some incredibly far-reaching consequences. Will Google abandon China? In the long run, I seriously doubt it. But the fact that they are willing to put up such a fight in situations where global political powers fear to tread should be commended, even if it also highlights just how much clout the world’s multi-national corporations are beginning to hold.