It might be regarded as one of the slowest chess games in history, given that it took Google two months to make its move to stop filtering results on its Chinese language search engine. But it is also one of the most dramatic.
Professor Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University, told me that Google’s play has certainly upped the ante.
“This now puts China in the spotlight to answer the question of whether or not they want to filter a site that is legal in Hong Kong. My guess is there will be a lot of discussion before they do that and it will be done at a high level.”
Ever since Google went public about the cyber-attacks it suffered back in December, it has occupied a lonely stage. While it was very unusual for a firm to ‘fess up about such a breach, the other 20-or-30-odd companies that got hit have all more-or-less stayed hidden in the wings.
Similarly, after Google took what has been seen by many as a bold step in ending censorship of its results, support has largely come from advocacy organisations and pressure groups as opposed to big named technology companies.
So what does this mean for other high-tech firms doing business in China? Will they come out and follow in Google’s footsteps? Most commentators seem to think not.
“US companies in China will have to balance the concerns about complicity with their ability to provide access to information,” said Leslie Harris of the Centre for Democracy and Technology.
“There may come a point where you need to consider whether you continue to operate in the market. It is going too far to say every company must follow Google’s lead.”
Professor Zittrain said he doesn’t expect any big names to put their heads above the parapet any time soon.
“Other companies are basically hunkered down under the table waiting for their parents to finish fighting. They don’t want to get into this,” said Professor Zittrain.
Even if you are the world’s most powerful internet company, one imagines it can’t be easy going up against a regime like China’s. With its economic might and its growing internet population of over 384m, many might have expected Google to play safe rather than come out fighting in this way.
Some might have preferred a more softly-softly approach – or so hints a survey released by the American Chamber of Commerce in China. It indicated that an increasing number of US firms are being made to feel unwelcome in the country.
“There are questions about the durability of Google’s new position, and whether we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of Western firms and their ability to navigate the political shoals of doing business in China,” Jacqueline Newmyer, president of Long Term Strategy Group, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based defence research firm told Market Watch.
But a brief interview that Google co-founder Sergey Brin gave to the New York Times leaves no-one in any doubt that for him there is a very personal aspect to all of this, suggesting that there was only ever one path for Google to follow.
He lived in the Soviet Union until he was six-years-old under a totalitarian regime that clamped down on political speech. Mr Brin admitted that experience left its mark and affected his thinking and that of Google’s policy.
“It has definitely shaped my views, and some of my company’s views,” he admitted.