Google's Sergey Brin Leads Charge Against Chinese Web Censorship

In the weeks following Google's (GOOG) threat to leave China in January, there was a great deal of debate over the company's motives. Some suggested that after bowing to China's censors for four years, Google had only garnered one-third of the market -- and thus had failed. So it had little to lose financially but a lot to gain morally by leaving.

On Monday, Google made good on its threat by closing its China-based site and redirecting users to a site in Hong Kong. Already, though, Chinese censors are filtering politically sensitive search results returning to the mainland. And Chinese authorities have lashed out at Google, calling the company's actions "totally wrong."

Although it's clear that Google's spat with China will have little impact on its bottom line in the near-term, there's a growing sense that Google may suffer long-term damage from its decision. One big worry: China's giant state-affiliated mobile companies, China Mobile and China Unicom, will cancel plans to introduce phones based on Google's Android mobile operating system.

To hear Google co-founder Sergey Brin tell it, these commercial considerations were secondary to the principle of standing up for free speech against a totalitarian government that monitors, tortures and jails dissidents. In a series of interviews this week, Brin has elaborated on the personal factors that led to Google's decision to close its China-based site. (View a timeline of Google's recent dispute with China.)

Brin: Reminded of Soviet Totalitarianism

Speaking to The Guardian, Brin said his experience growing up in the Soviet Union played a strong role in Google's decision. "It touches me more than other people having been born in a country that was totalitarian and having seen that for the first few years of my life," he said.

As The Wall Street Journaldescribed it:
The 36-year-old co-founder says he was also moved by growing evidence in China of repressive behavior he remembered from the Soviet Union, which he and his parents fled when he was six years old. He says memories of that time -- having his home visited by Russian police; the anti-Semitic discrimination against his father -- emboldened his view that it was time to abandon Google's policy.
Ever since the search giant launched its China-based search engine in 2006, the company has faced criticism for bowing to Chinese censorship rules which prohibit politically sensitive topics like the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibetan independence and the Dalai Lama. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has argued that "some Google is better than no Google" and that the company's presence there -- even censored -- would help gradually liberalize China.

Brin was never fully comfortable with that policy and he said evidence that China-based hackers targeted the Google email accounts of human-rights workers and dissidents was the "straw that broke the camel's back."

The Google co-founder is urging the U.S. to make human rights an equal priority with trade in its dealings with China -- something that would represent a departure from current practice, to put it mildly. "I certainly hope they make it a high priority," Brin told the UK paper. "Human rights issues deserve equal time to the trade issues that are high priority now."

Google: Internet Freedom Needed For Global Trade

But Brin's motives aren't purely altruistic. Echoing what open internet advocates have said for years, Brin linked internet freedom with global trade. "Since services and information are our most successful exports, if regulations in China effectively prevent us from being competitive, then they are a trade barrier," he told the paper.

Brin criticized those he called "free marketeers" for rejecting "the notion that any company should make any sort of decision other than to maximize profit." He said he is "very disappointed" in Microsoft (MSFT) for not standing with Google against China. "As I understand, they have effectively no market share -- so they essentially spoke against freedom of speech and human rights simply in order to contradict Google," Brin said.

Testifying before Congress Wednesday, Alan Davidson, Google's director of public policy, emphasized that connection between internet freedom and trade as well.

"At issue is the continued economic growth spurred by a free and globally accessible Internet," Davidson said. "Barriers to the free flow of information online have significant and serious economic implications: They impose often one-sided restrictions on the services of U.S. and global Internet companies while also impeding other businesses who depend on the Internet to reach their customers."

"When a foreign government pursues censorship policies in a manner that favors domestic Internet companies, this goes against basic international trade principles of non-discrimination and maintaining a level playing field," Davidson added.
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