This year at Davos, Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, told an audience of journalists that his company is not a country, does not set laws, and does not have a police force. Yet in its showdown with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet. Well, somebody has to.
Next to no one has been willing to stand up to China's suppression of speech online. Other companies – Yahoo, Cisco – have handed over information that led to the imprisonment of dissidents, or have helped China build its Great Firewall. Many more, from News Corp to the New York Times Company, have coveted the Chinese market and overlooked the regime's tyranny to do business there. Governments have hardly been better, doing between little and nothing to pressure China over human and digital rights.
But Google did. Now it has turned off the filter it never should have created if it wanted to stay true to its don't-be-evil dictum. It has dared the Chinese government to block search and speech and expose its censorship to its people. By its action, Google also dares other companies and governments to follow.
The fight against apartheid in South Africa had its Sullivan principles; the fight for free speech and a free, secure internet now has its Google principles. I don't mean to equate the virtual repression in the Chinese internet with the racial, physical and economic repression that occurred in South Africa under apartheid. But in both instances, there came a time when companies had to ask – or be asked – whether they could justify supporting tyrannical regimes. Pulling out of China is a moral decision.
Today, moral decisions are also business decisions. The economist Umair Haque argues that when we can all talk about companies online, the price of doing evil has increased. Google is repairing its social standing.
Cynics say Google left China because it was beaten by Baidu; few western companies are competing well against Chinese counterparts (even Rupert Murdoch has been foiled). But I say Google is instead defending its entire business – because it is defending the internet itself against censorship, government control, espionage and attack.
Google's business strategy is dead simple: the more we use the internet, the more Google makes. If governments are allowed and enabled to restrict freedom on the internet to a lowest common denominator (as the UK's libel tourism does for publishing), and if we worry that our data in the cloud is not secure, and if citizens of totalitarian states fear the internet will be used to jail them, then we will trust and use it less. Google loses. We all lose.
But even Google cannot fight this alone. "No single company and no single industry can tackle internet censorship on its own," Google's director of public policy, Alan Davidson, told a Congressional panel last week. He urged Congress to consider withholding development aid for countries that restrict online speech and including free speech online in trade agreements. Davidson said 40 nations censor the internet and 25 governments have blocked Google.
I wait to see what governments will do to support the freedom of the Chinese people and of the internet. So far, it seems, the White House is applauding Google's actions with one hand. I wait to see other companies matching Google's guts. Or perhaps I should wish for popular support for free speech in the internet – a movement from us, the society of users. That is how companies and governments were pressured to divest their interests in South Africa. So where is our outcry for freedom and security? The internet is ours to lose.
In 1996, the Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow wrote a rousing Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace: "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one … "
Perhaps we now need a bill of rights in cyberspace to claim and secure our freedom to connect, speak, assemble and act online; to each control our identities and data; to speak our languages; to protect what is public and private; and to assure openness. (Please come and discuss it.)
With that, our diplomatic mission to the old world – Google – can fight for what's right. Someone must.
Jeff Jarvis is the author of What Would Google Do?