Google Chips Away at China's Great Firewall

To many in Silicon Valley, the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who "get it," and those who don't. The people who get it are the ones who understand that the Internet is the biggest thing that has ever happened in the history of the human race, a wave so huge and so powerful that the only way to cope with it is to jump on and hope to make money building a new world once the tsunami has laid waste to the old one.

Those who don't get it are the ones who try to fight the Internet wave, or slow it down. Entire industries fit that description: movies, music, publishing, real estate, cable-TV providers, operators of mobile-phone networks—the list goes on. Now, at the top of the list, goes China.

That is the message Google is sending by saying it will no longer comply with China's demand that its search results be censored. Suddenly China is being called out for its transgressions, depicted not just as evil but also, worse yet, as backward and stupid. This is all kind of incredible, because China is proving itself to be so advanced and sophisticated at next-generation technologies, from solar panels to high-speed trains.

Yet when it comes to the Internet, China does not get it. Hacking into servers so clumsily that you get caught? Throwing up filters? Choking off information? Hobbling search engines so that people get a censored version of reality?

This is idiotic. China is fighting the Internet. And like everyone else who fights the Internet, China will lose. People in China can already get around the "Great Firewall," using anonymizers like Tor, which lets you create virtual tunnels so you can sidestep filters and communicate anonymously over the Internet.

The shift to the mobile Web creates even more freedom. These days everybody has a smart phone, which means everyone now has a video camera and a virtual satellite truck right in their pocket. How do you stop that? The government in Iran shut down mainstream media, but news and pictures keep flowing out via Twitter.

Yes, a government can shut down servers that are passing Twitter messages. But then hackers route around the roadblock by setting up proxy servers. The government can hunt those down and block them, but hackers just set up new ones.

Technology guru Stewart Brand once said, "Information wants to be free," and I believe this means "free as in freedom," rather than "free as in beer." Information will not allow itself to be penned up.

I suppose in theory a government could shut down all cell-phone and landline operators and all the Internet service providers. But imagine the backlash when a population gets dragged back into the Dark Ages.

In other words, you can't win. This is what people meant, back in the 1990s, when they said the Internet would be a disruptive force on a global scale.

To be sure, Google should never have made its Faustian bargain with China in the first place. Google rationalized the deal by saying Chinese users were better off getting a limited version of Google than getting no Google at all. My sense is that this claim was rubbish and that Google just wanted to make money.

But four years later Google has made little headway in China and is likely losing a great deal of money there. Google has only half the market share of Baidu, a Chinese search engine, and can't seem to gain ground. So maybe Google just wants to get out of China, and the censorship battle provides cover for a retreat. Google declined to comment on that point and directed NEWSWEEK to the company's blog post on the matter.*

What's the sense of pushing into a market where the government lets you sell only a half-baked version of your product? It's as if U.S. automakers could sell cars in China only if they agreed to ship them with one wheel missing.

On top of that, the Chinese started hacking into Google's servers, trying to dig up information about Chinese human-rights activists. At which point the Google guys just said, "Enough."

But here's a theory. Maybe the Google guys weren't really shocked by China's hacking. They shouldn't have been, since all countries, including our own, are hacking the Internet all the time and using the Web to spy on people.

So maybe Google had this planned all along. Maybe it went along with the China deal back in 2006 figuring that it would either (a) make loads of money in China, and if so, keep quiet about the censorship; or (b) fail to create a thriving business in China, but create an opportunity to generate some positive publicity by sparking a debate about the Internet and censorship. My guess: even the smarty-pants Google geniuses probably don't think that far ahead. But anyway, the debate is one we need to have.

The Internet is bigger than any one country—even a country as big as China. Calling out China as someone who "doesn't get it" is a way of putting the rest of the world on notice.

Daniel Lyons is also the author of Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs and Dog Days: A Novel.