Google Defends Internet Freedom.
Only when convenient. If the world's human rights community had to choose its favorite Fortune 500 company, Google -- the world's overwhelming leader in Internet search and a trendsetter in everything from global mapping to social networking-- would be a top contender. Decrying the Chinese government's censorship demands, Google recently decided to move its Chinese search engine to Hong Kong and promised to spare no effort to protect identities of Chinese dissidents who use Gmail. Much of the Western world applauded, as Google seemed to live up to its "don't be evil" corporate motto.
Let's remember that Google, like any company, is motivated by profit rather than some higher purpose: The company entered China not to spread the gospel of Internet freedom, but to sell ads in what is now the world's largest online market. Only four years after agreeing to censor its search results did it refuse to do so any longer. Yet had it managed to make greater inroads among Chinese consumers, does anyone doubt that its decision to defy Beijing would have been much more difficult?
Sometimes Google really does operate on principle. In early March, Google executives held a joint event with Freedom House, bringing bloggers from the Middle East to Washington to participate in a series of talks on such topics as "digital media's power in social movements" and "political parties and elections 2.0." Last summer, Google stood up to protect Cyxymu, a Georgian blogger who found himself the target of intense cyberattacks -- supposedly from Russian nationalists unhappywith his take on the 2008 Russia-Georgia war -- by keeping his Google-hosted blog online. Following the incident, the company's public-policy blog even boasted of Google's commitment to "giving a voice to 'digital refugees.'"
But the company's reputation as a defender of Internet freedom is decidedly mixed. For example, its Internet filtering process in Thailand -- driven by the country's strict laws against insulting the monarchy -- is not particularly transparent and draws much criticism from the country's netizens. In India, Google faces understandable government pressure to remove extremist and nationalist content from Orkut, its social networking site; yet some Indian critics charge that Google is overzealous in its self-censorship because it fears losing access to the vast Indian market. Google's defense of Internet freedom is, ultimately, a pragmatically principled stance, with the rules often applied on a case-by-case basis. It would be somewhat naive -- and, perhaps, even dangerous -- to expect Google to become the new Radio Free Europe.
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