The Google-China controversy has escalated to a high-stakes standoff, in which Google gives Beijing the finger by rerouting Chinese searches to its uncensored search engine in Hong Kong. The Chinese government isn't kicking Google employees out of the country or imprisoning them for breaking local communications laws, but Google isn't leaving well enough alone, and it seems to relish a chance to stick it to The Man.
Yeah? So what?
If that were all there was to it, then fine -- let Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU ) celebrate its missing competitor while still-censored Western search engines provided by Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) jockey for position in the new vacuum. But the situation's just not that simple. Everyone and their uncle now seems to expect Google to set the tone for American business practices and policy when it comes to Chinese relations.
- The Christian Science Monitor calls upon President Obama to "follow Google's lead and speak truth to Beijing," applying Google's unbending attitude against censorship to Chinese currency policies. "By opposing Internet censorship, Google has now stood up to China on a basic freedom. Obama must do the same and tag China as a currency manipulator."
- Chinese newspaper China Daily published comments by a state-sponsored researcher, claiming that Google and the U.S. government are joined at the hip. "Google's moves are combined with Washington's tongue," says an editor's note at the top of the article. The search giant's withdrawal is part of "a deliberate plot" by the government under the "excuse" of promoting freedom on the global Internet.
- The Chinese action is resonating back home: Domain name service provider Go Daddy Group has addressed Congress to show how Google's principled stand inspired Go Daddy to follow suit. And Google itself isn't backing down from the responsibility, as its executives also lobby Congress to put an emphasis on Internet openness in trade talks.
That's just a small sample of the ripple effect as Google's actions spread across global business and international relations, of course. Conservative think tank guru and UN Emissary John Bolton says that Google sent "a message to enterprises worldwide: You can do the same." Moreover, Bolton says that "the Obama administration should emulate Google's approach in official dealings, and support U.S. businesses in situations similar to Google so they do not have to act alone."
What is Google doing wrong here?
If Google isn't an official operating and policy-influencing arm of the U.S. government, then the company is clearly being treated as such by many influential and/or respectable observers in America, China, and elsewhere. And I don't think that's Google's correct place in the world.
I'm not telling Brin and the gang to apologize profusely and beg for China's forgiveness, nor do I advocate a clean cut with Beijing. In fact, I think the decision to circumvent the Great Chinese Firewall -- if only for a short while -- is brilliant, inspired, and commendable. And I can understand if a company that promises to "do no evil" might be expected to lead by example. So far, so good.
Still, Big G should take a half-step away from Washington and reduce its lobbying efforts, especially on highly political issues like foreign trade policies. Google's mission is "to facilitate access to information for the entire world, and in every language." That comes dangerously close to making Google an official crusader for free speech and human rights, which sounds like a great motivation for Superman, but not so much for a public business with shareholders and employees to consider.
Echoes of Iraq
Keep walking down that square-jawed, heroic path, and there's no telling where Google might go. The, ahem, overly enthusiastic Multi National United corporation in the movie District 9 seems to be modeled on Blackwater and Halliburton (NYSE: HAL ) , but I don't want my mind to wander to Google instead the next time I see the film. Leave that stuff to heavy industry and military suppliers, OK? For the issues that really matter to Google's core business, direct conversations with other businesses like AT&T (NYSE: T ) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) seem to make more sense than penetrating the Beltway.
Get out of D.C.!
If the last few weeks have taught us anything, it's that whatever Google chooses to do on the international stage will be watched very closely by everybody from businesses to governments and independent thinkers. Ergo, it would behoove the company to consider that spotlight before doing anything rash. Giving the finger to Chinese censorship is inspiring, but it doesn't do shareholders any favors -- and it might get the company in hotter water than Sergey Brin ever intended.
Whether or not they stay in China, it's time to take Google's staffers out of D.C.