Why Google Will Blink First in its Staredown with China...
Over the past two weeks the battle between Google and China has been chronicled all over the place. Today, Thomas Friedman, writing an op-ed in the NY Times, takes the cake for gross over-exaggeration of Google's power and influence.
Google discovered in December that it was the victim of cyberattacks by hackers within the Chinese government. They were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore (despite previously being totally ok with government censorship policies). In a must-read statement, the Official Google Blog posted the following...
These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered -- combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web -- have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.
Some commentators saw the threat as heroic. Others as business suicide.
It's high noon. Will Google shut down its business operations in China, or will the Chinese government start lifting its censorship policies?
My money's on China not changing a thing. It'll either say sayonara to Google, or Google will simply retract its bluff. I completely agree with the Silicon Alley Insider's assessment...
Google may have taken its stand and its threat a few words too far. We still think the situation will likely be resolved through a back-room compromise, with both parties declaring victory and Google staying. But Google's black or white approach -- stop censoring or we leave -- has left it with less wiggle room than it would otherwise have had. A more flexible approach might have been wiser.
So let's get back to Thomas Friedman. The globalization guru argues that China's crucial entrepreneurial sector relies on high-value business and information flows. "Network China", he says, cannot survive without having unfettered access to these flows...
That is what the war over Google is really all about: It is a proxy and a symbol for whether the Chinese will be able to freely search and connect wherever their imaginations and creative impulses take them, which is critical for the future of Network China.
However, Friedman is seriously over-exaggerating Google's importance. First of all, Google is only one company, and one that is, for that matter, far less influential in China today than it is in, say, the United States. If Google withdraws, there are still plenty of search engines who'd love to take their market share, not to mention new startups eager to take their place.
Second, technophiles are drinking their own kool-aid. The internet has a great ability to influence political cultures, but influence is a type of soft-power. Governments have actual hard-power capabilities. Google isn't even in the same ballpark as the Chinese government when it comes to being able to create real policies of authority.
Really, does anyone truly believe that if Google went out of business tomorrow that governments around the world would suddenly be toppled by revolution? We all know and love Google's search engine, but let's remember that the company isn't actually that important.
The bottom line is that, without Google, life in China would go on without hardly a hiccup of interruption. I know Friedman was speaking mostly in symbolic terms, but this idea that shutting down Google will somehow lead to the extinction of the Chinese Communist Party is going far beyond making a mountain out of a molehill.