Every new communications and information technology has seen responses from vested interests seeking to restrict or ban it. However, they have also proven to be the unlocking of freedom, a check on bullies, charlatans and authoritarians of every bent. It is no surprise that the Nazis engaged in public book burning, that communist Romania banned typewriters unless they were officially approved, registered and their typefaces customised so the Securitate could tell whose typewriter had produced a document.
Whilst the Nazis were the first to extensively use radio broadcasts to rally support across the nation, the discovery of shortwave radio meant that people in authoritarian regimes could get news from free countries. So the Soviets and even today regimes in China, Cuba and Iran still attempt to jam inbound radio broadcasts from the likes of the BBC and Voice of America. North Korea simply produces radios with no tuning dial, with the capacitor preset to the single state radio station.
Television became a key platform to inform East Germans of what life in the West was like, and news from a non-Stalinist perspective, with much of East Germany able to receive West German terrestrial television broadcasts. Satellite TV more recently has made major inroads across the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. However, entry into that market in China has been done respecting local censorship laws.
However, the internet has become revolutionary. As anyone online can produce content, and the content accessed is up to the person online, its scope is ubiquitous and all encompassing. However, unlike broadcasting, the internet is also an essential business tool. Email is now vital to the productivity and sales of many businesses.
In the mid-late 1990s I attended several intergovernmental meetings which discussed "regulating" the internet. At the time Saudi Arabia had banned it, because it had no idea how to handle content that was blasphemy against Islam and anything of a sexual nature. What was made abundantly clear is that with the internet comes freedom of choice, although some countries were and still are engaging in grand firewall projects.
When Google set up google.cn, it agreed to respect the censorship policies of the People's Republic of China. Google argued that participating in the Chinese market would be more positive for free speech than ignoring it. However, whilst Google would explicitly not include certain results in its google.cn searches, it was clear savvy users in China could find ways around this.
Since then, the Chinese government has expressed concern that Google facilitates access to pornography, and has called for Google to step up measures to help with its censorship efforts. It is trying to pursue an endless game and losing.
So the announcement by Google that it will pull out of China unless it can provide a free open uncensored service is astonishing. It has justified it on the grounds that there have been hacking attempts at Gmail accounts from China, and presumably it has little recourse to the Chinese authorities to prosecute this. However, it is a brave move in the country that has now got the largest number of internet users in the world.
Google has apparently stopped censoring google.cn, which must be causing great angst amongst the Chinese government and the Communist Party. Previously censored articles and images of Tiananmen Square, critiques of Mao Tse Tung and support for Chinese dissidents, Taiwan and indeed much porn will now be easily accessible.
More important than that, Google has let all users in China know of its policy. It has called upon the 300 million or so Chinese internet users to note what their government is doing, and how Google will walk if things don't change.
It is a calculated risk. In China, Google is not the leading search engine. A local variant, Baidu, (a blatant copy) is. However, it will not take long before its users learn they can access what was previously forbidden. Google risks losing advertising revenue in China, now the world's second biggest economy. Yet Google also will gain publicity elsewhere and support from millions in the free world.
So what is the likely response from Beijing? I suspect it will seek to wave Google farewell and seek to ingratiate itself with Yahoo and MSN. It is terrified of free information, protests and calls for political reform, so will itself seek to block Google. After all, the odds that millions of Chinese will revolt over this is low. Yet it will put a stumbling block in the growth of the internet in China.
However, kudos to Google. It will have declared its hand as being the search engine for a free world, it will have shown how a private company can frighten the world's largest authoritarian government. After all, look at how sanitised this report from Xinhua (the Chinese state news agency) is about the issue.
Peter Foster, the Beijing correspondent of the Daily Telegraph says: "Interestingly, for all the nationalism and anti-foreign sentiment that typifies China’s more vocal netizens, the majority of comments on Chinese web discussions forums seem to be extremely worried about what Google’s potential pull-out signifies for China in the longer term."
China has made massive progress though its own hard work and ingenuity, but it has also leant heavily on a global knowledge economy whose well-spring is the free-flow of information.
Google is a potent symbol of that idea and while China can get along just fine without Google in the short-term, a decision to shun Google (which at this point looks the likely course) would expose the inherent limits of the Chinese ‘miracle’.Yes, the relative economic freedom China has experienced in the past 30 years has been matched by much less individual freedom, particularly when it comes to holding government and more specifically the Communist Party to account. It would appear that the Communist Party can no longer demand obedience and surrender by foreign companies seeking to reap rewards from the ample Chinese market.