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Far-Ranging Support for Google’s China Move

Published: January 14, 2010

BEIJING — Google’s surprising decision this week to abandon cooperation with Chinese government censors — and, possibly, its four-year effort to do business here — is galvanizing an unusually broad coalition of foreigners who hope for a fresh chance to rein in the conduct of an emerging great power.

Most of those forces — from the American right and left, the business and technology communities and human-rights advocacy groups — are united by a belief that their concerns over China’s human-rights and free-speech constraints have been buried in a rush to online profit.

Some of them have been dismayed by the conciliatory approach toward Beijing taken by the Obama administration, which counts Google’s leadership among its most prominent political supporters. Others claim that the problems that prompted Google’s stance are symptoms of a serious decline in China’s business climate under an increasingly conservative leadership. But it is far from clear that this movement will succeed in prodding either the Chinese government or other companies who still dream of a vast market. Google, which said it would stop cooperating with Chinese censors after uncovering Chinese hackers’ efforts to penetrate its computers and steal information on human-rights activists, has officially remained on the sidelines of this movement.

In recent weeks, however, it has quietly taken some steps that in retrospect seem aimed squarely at addressing the attacks. In December, a Google senior vice president, Jonathan Rosenberg, issued an online manifesto that placed Google’s business and ethical interests squarely behind open information, and against censorship.

“There are forces aligned against the open Internet — governments who control access, companies who fight in their own self-interests to preserve the status quo,” he wrote. “They are powerful, and if they succeed we will find ourselves inhabiting an Internet of fragmentation, stagnation, higher prices, and less competition.”

More pointedly, a Google engineer’s blog announced this week that the company’s popular Gmail service, which was a target of the Chinese hackers, will henceforth employ extra encryption by default.

Those who hope to use Google’s stance as a wedge to pressure China argue that its refusal to cooperate with Chinese censors will prove a watershed.

“Good for Google for naming the elephant in the room,” one Beijing entrepreneur, an American with a deep knowledge of China’s Internet, said in an interview on Thursday. That person, like many others interviewed, declined to be identified for fear that the Chinese government would retaliate. “Who else in the world has moral authority against China? Who else? Only Google, and they just used it. They just shot their bullet.”

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor and a founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said that Google’s action had raised the ethical bar for foreign investors across China. “I think every major outside firm is clearly going to have to do a reality check with itself in the wake of the Google announcement,” he said.

But the early reaction to Google’s announcement suggests otherwise. Microsoft, whose Bing search engine has entered the Chinese market, has shown no public inclination to change its business here. Apple’s iTunes service still forbids Chinese users from downloading certain applications that refer to the Dalai Lama and the Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer.

“Your everyday investor in China is not concerned with these problems, especially when they’re selling tractors, cars and airplanes,” said Stephen A. Orlins, the president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations. “I think they’ll wait to see what the Chinese government’s role in this really is.”

Even some Internet experts are skeptical that Google’s stand will galvanize a broader effort to liberalize China’s free-speech or human rights policies. A number of blogs argue that Google already faced a dim future in China, where its search engine was a distant second to the home-grown Baidu service, and that threatening to leave the market was more a public-relations move than a moral crusade.

“I don’t think you’ll see a giant ripple effect,” said Mark Natkin, the managing director of Marbridge Consulting, an information technology research and consulting firm in Beijing. “It is possible that if Microsoft does nothing after Google does, this will reflect poorly on them.”

But then, “you can justify a lot of things if the pot of gold is big enough,” he added.

By Google’s standards, the money in China is not yet big. Perhaps 50 million Internet users rely on Google, less than half the number of regular Baidu users, and the advertising that Google sells on its site is proportionately smaller.

Still, surveys show that Google’s users are the cream of China’s Web-surfing class — more educated, wealthier and better informed than others. Users also rated Google superior to Baidu in finding Web pages, according to a survey by China IntelliConsulting Group — perhaps because Google censors fewer Web sites than do most Chinese search engines.

Google’s supporters say they hope that the company’s public repudiation of censorship will reignite a free-speech debate that has seriously diminished since coverage of China business news began to rival that of its political developments.

The broad constituency of Google supporters may bolster their cause. Since its announcement, Google has won praise from The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page and from the generally left-leaning advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

In the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House and an ardent Democrat, called Google’s actions “an example to businesses and governments,” while the New Jersey Republican Chris Smith demanded legislation to prevent American technology firms from working with foreign nations that conduct Internet surveillance of their own citizens.

Outside government, some advocates are offering their own suggestions to raise the free-speech issue more broadly. In interviews, two American entrepreneurs working in China said that civil-liberties supporters should consider pressuring major investors like pensions funds and university endowments to renounce their investment in Chinese companies that engage in repression or theft of intellectual property.

Many investment advisors routinely offer baskets of stocks that include Chinese companies that violate not just American laws on the theft of intellectual property, but Chinese laws as well, one Internet expert said. Although China has agreed to World Trade Organization rules barring the theft of such property, Internet companies here routinely stream American and other movies free over their Web sites, without apparent consequences.

Others suggested that Google employees, who are routinely allowed to spend one in five workdays on the project of their choice, devote their time to devising ways to subvert Chinese censorship of the Internet. A popular Twitter post advocated that Google, Facebook and Twitter — three American services subject to comprehensive censorship here — sponsor the American pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, defending an open society against the closed version being offered by China’s leaders.

Would those gambits work? One Internet industry analyst, who also declined to be named, had his doubts. The major effect of Google’s departure from Beijing, he said, would be to free 700 trained technology experts to work for a Chinese competitor.

“Ultimately,” he said, “I just don’t think that they care that much.”

Sharon LaFraniere contributed reporting.