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Comment on ‘Google or China: Who Has More to Lose?’ (Room for Debate, New York Times 03/24/2010)

March 24, 2010

In response to

‘Google or China: Who Has More to Lose

New York Times | March 24, 2010:

As comforting as it is to frame this story entirely in the context of the “good” of free access to information vs. the “evil” of censorship, we mustn’t forget that Google’s sudden attack of conscience was triggered by the company’s discovery that it had been the victim of a campaign of cybercrime directly traceable back to the Chinese government. Kudos to Google’s PR people for their excellent job in spinning the story (and shame on the NYT for being so credulous as to let them get away with it), but let’s not allow our longing for corporate ethics to delude us into thinking that Google’s isn’t responding to a direct threat to its parochial interests .

Nor should we kid ourselves that either the mere act of leaving or a momentary slug of bad PR for the PRC is much more than a symbolic gesture. Does any intelligent person really think that a corporate rebuke can have a meaningful impact on the totalitarian government of a 5,000 year-old culture in a country of 1.3 billion people? Absurd.

It’s obvious that however odious Google’s management might have felt the Chinese government’s censorship to have been, the business reason for leaving was a realization that the revenue generated in the market didn’t offset the cost of having both their own code stolen and their ability to compete as a cloud computing services provider undermined. Those are perfectly legitimate reasons for a firm to say ‘no mas’, and it’s very sad that Google chose grandstanding over providing leadership on the real — and much more important — issue of protecting Western firms’ ability to sustain business models based on innovation.

There is much to admire about China’s great leap forward. But there’s a zombie-like quality about the way in which it eats the brains of its “partners” and uses what it steals — along with currency manipulation and cheap labor — to excrete heavily-subsidized goods, and that those goods sap the strength of the rest of the world’s economies.

If Google really wanted to do some good in the world it would stand up for the principle that in a global economy in which innovation is increasingly becoming a critical competitive advantage, China has chosen to stubbornly insist on policies which are tantamount to economic warfare on the rest of the world. Not that I’m against feel-good stories, but they’re dangerous when they distract us from the real issues at hand.

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