Battelle: Never Poke a Dragon While It’s Eating

John Battelle posts his thoughts on the recent rash of search engine v. China incidents. He follows up on Yahoo’s call for the search engines to band together and fight Chinese censorship of the web:

So what to say about all this? After all, can we really expect private companies to effect national and international policy? Perhaps if they banded together – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL (GYMA) – and said “Enough! We ask the Chinese government to respect the basic rights of humans to free speech and free association!” After all, besides the universal claim that “going into China, even censored, is better than not going in, in terms of total information available to the Chinese user,” the real reason all these companies are going in is, well, their competitors are going in. What if they all agreed to hold hands and…not jump?

He later draws the comparison about how companies like Nike seem to be able to navigate the complicated issues of dealing with China successfully, but with search engines, the stakes are much higher:

But companies like Yahoo and Google don’t traffic in sneakers, they traffic in the most powerful forces in human culture – expression. Knowledge. Ideas. The freedom of which we take as fundamental in this country, yet somehow, we seem to have forgotten its importance in the digital age – in China, one protesting email can land you in jail for 8 years, folks.

Like Yahoo, Battelle concludes that we need leadership from above (the White House) in order to fight Chinese censorship:

Until the person leading this country values human rights over appeasement, and decides to lead on this issue, we’re never going to make any progress. Congress can call hearings, and beat up Yahoo, Google and the others for doing what everyone else is doing, but in the end, it’s not GYMA’s fault, nor, as much as I wish they’d take it on, is it even their problem. It’s our government’s problem. Since when is China policy somehow the job of private industry?

Until that government gives GYMA a China policy it can align behind, well, they’ll never align, and the very foundation of our culture – free expression and privacy, will be imperiled.

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