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Sun 24 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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‘Don’t-be-evil’ guys tell China to Google this

Google founders are finally living up to their motto: 'Don't Be Evil', says William Pesek.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page are finally living up to their motto: "Don't Be Evil".

It turns out that Google Inc's founders have a conscience even after helping China censor cyberspace. Last week, the most popular Internet search engine said it may shut its Chinese website and offices.

It's about time, guys. It was always as distasteful as it was incongruous for the banner-waver of the information economy to help China keep its 1.3 billion people in the dark. In a previous column, for example, I suggested we should be honest and refer to it as
CommunistGoogle.com

.

Better late than never, though. Such a high-level rebuke is important because it shines a spotlight on how much energy governments expend on censoring the Internet. This conversation is about to get more traction than ever. It's one that Asian officials from Beijing to Jakarta very much need to have for the good of their economies.

This story has many facets. One is the "what-were-these-otherwise-bright-guys-thinking?" question. Google seems oddly aghast at discovering a "highly sophisticated" attack aimed at gaining access to e-mail accounts of human-rights activists. You would think that with their collective intelligence, Brin and Page might have known they weren't dealing with Sweden.

Another is how shareholders will respond to Google imperiling its future in the nation with the most Internet users. After all, few others have been willing to do that. Not Bill Gates's Microsoft Corp, not the techies at Yahoo! Inc and not the engineers at Cisco Systems Inc Technology companies tend to see dollar signs, not ethical dilemmas, when operating in China. The onus is now on them to match Google's gesture.

Finally, there may be diplomatic fallout. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on China to explain allegations that "raise very serious concerns and questions." President Barack Obama is off to a rocky start with the biggest holder of US Treasuries. He may come under pressure to take a harder line toward China.

The issue here is how the third-largest economy effectively ties one arm behind its back. It's also about how many Asian governments ignore the consequences of policing cyberspace, much to the detriment of their economic futures.

The democracy-is-always-best mantra doesn't help here. Yet a free press and unfettered cyberspace are ingredients for nations to thrive.

In China's case, the key to broadening the benefits of ten percent growth is tackling official corruption and protecting the environment. Only greater public accountability will achieve that, and only increased transparency will provide it.

It's not just China, Myanmar and North Korea that block the web. Countries such as India, Indonesia and Thailand aren't above blocking sites or content from time to time. Lawmakers in Japan and South Korea have been making noises about new internet-content rules. Google's China move may prompt politicians to reconsider such measures.

Transparency pressures corporate executives, too. Sure, muckraking journalists sometimes go too far. Scandals sell newspapers. The press and the internet play important roles in keeping top managers honestLast year's safety scares involving Chinese seafood, dumplings, pet food, toothpaste, medicine and toys could have been uncovered sooner if information flowed more freely.

It is hard to know how any major economy could create an indigenous technology industry while censoring the internet. Pundits always said controlling the web would be futile. Governments, they argued, would find it harder and harder to police fast-changing technologies and fast-learning bloggers.

The opposite happened in China. There, the trend has been ever-tighter control, an evolving effort that was very much on display during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. China is learning, adapting and improving its censorship mechanisms. The Great Firewall of China is hard to beat.

Critics will still find much to dislike about Mountain View, California-based Google.

Hats off to Google, though. Shareholders won't be happy that a China pullout would deprive Google of an estimated $600m in annual revenue from 338 million Internet users. And it's safe to say investors in Baidu Inc, China's most popular search engine, are jumping for joy over that possibility.

It's the right thing for Google to do. The company said at least twenty other large enterprises in industries such as finance, technology, media and chemicals had been targeted by hackers.The attacks, combined with increasing attempts to limit free speech on the web, were an obvious last straw for Silicon Valley's most-watched company.

Technology peers should follow Google's example and stop selling their corporate souls to China's Communist Party.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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CT 10 years ago

Yes it is about time that the world puts a lot more of MORALITY into the equation of LIFE and no more business as usual when it comes to the level of corruption, manipulation, greed this world is experiencing and witnessing on a level never seen before. We all are a lot more aware now of those elements I've just mentioned, from the little guy to the big guy and its because of TECHNOLOGY. The space in which these lies abound from one end of the world to the other, is becoming smaller and smaller and smaller until there will be no place for them to hide anymore.

Dan 10 years ago

So now maybe Google start naming Persian Gulf as it is and not just thinking about all the money they were making of the other name. It’s got to a point where they no longer put a name to it in Google map. Talk about cornering your self with no way out. But as the author says; it’s never too late to do the right thing.