Better to Google and get censored, than never to hit the Great Firewall at all?

In whose control is censorship? And what responsibilities, if any, have American technology companies to defy China's demands to bowdlerize search results, restrict access to information, delete unwanted words, and hijack personal privacy online? Every cultural hegemony longs for complete control over the flow of information reaching its citizens (or captives, as it were). To bend minds to conform to a regime's will is to lubricate the wheels of civilization to better grind its society. While nations claim their opinions, disrupting the stream of information technology is akin to undermining economic development on the precarious niceties of political beliefs.

The U.S. treasures freedom of speech, in ways the crux of its national liberation, but often entangles its ends while pursuing a compulsion to share that freedom with the world: courageous international assistance is fine, but too naturally lends to unwarranted meddling in foreign affairs. Responding to a wave of international riots protesting caricatures conflating the Prophet Mohammad with violence, the official British and American denunciations of the inflammatory Dutch cartoons were rare concessions to cultural rights over those of a free press. In general, especially when the political incentives more often turn in the opposite direction, the U.S. comes down strong and hard against censorship.

Today every move and shift in course by the People’s Republic of China is treated by pundits and the press corps as if a sleuth update on the tweaking of an adversary's training program. In the tug-of-war between the rising rival in Beijing and U.S. technology companies over control of internet tools, the ultimate result is still unclear.
Last year Yahoo was lambasted by the press for assisting in the PRC's prosecution of a Chinese journalist--therebt pursing the world's largest potential market opportunity instead of strident defiance of China's demands for political censorship. Scince, other internet companies have followed suit, some with more reluctance and ethical struggle than others.

The ubiquitous Google has worked overtime to reach a compromise with China, and continues to curtail its acquiescence, even to the U.S. government. The internet giant's tenacity is impressive, but ultimately insufficient flanked on either side by the political prerogatives of two (increasingly opposing) super-powers.
Search engines less concerned with sharing users private information--MSN, Yahoo, Microsoft, Cisco--already voluntarily complied with federal requests for a sampling of user information, which the government has subpoenaed in enforce a child pornography law (the Child Online Protection Act). Google places itself in the position of a journalist entrusted with identifying information by an anonymous source; similarly, Google would not be able to do its job effectively without a special right to protect sources, so to speak. Should the privelge of the press be extended to search engines? (--the question is interesting both legally and in regard to the direction of information technology's evolution.) Unlike its conundrum with federal agencies, Google's recent decision to become accomplice to the PRC's political suppression through Google.cn (launched in January) does not simultaneously compromise its users' private information and industry trade secrets, specifically its filtering and parent-control technology.

Should the U.S. have boycotted the Olympics in Berlin based on geopolitics? The cost there was to the U.S. athletes who'd trained a lifetime for naught, with nebulous benefits. Here, the costs would be more dramatic and harder to justify. Internet access (despite ICANN) is not for Washington to regulate, and the denial would produce over a billion potential losers in the digital revolution. Time and again, real social progress gains more by time and innovation than from legislative pronouncements and political positioning. But that doesn't mean that, in the meantime, every tech player and the search engine user isn't tossed up as a pawn in a futile game.

On February 15, the four internet giants were grilled by a House human rights' committee on their "sickening compliance" with China's political mandate. Would Chinese people be better of with filtered but more extensive online access, or similarly restricted but also technologically out-dated tools? China has a tradition of civil disobedience and political subversion that dates far before the emergence of the PRC and certainly more developed than the infant world wide web. It is unlikely such a civilization will actually be held back from discussing the politics it wishes through euphemisms and allusions, anymore than an American teenager searching pornography or erotic would be deterred by a parental filter of family values.

Google, along with the rest of the interest companies, are servicing a demand in China for internet access for many realms aside from politics. Google's final submission may be called a "black day" for free expression by some, but for many more millions of internet users in China, it is only a boon. While every act may be interpreted as political, most are not in intent. The Search Engine Journal noted this news detracts considerably from Google's image as the "people's hero" for its refusal of domestic government demands. A MSN poll reports that 52% of respondents said Google's compliance changed the way it viewed the company, specifically in meeting its goal to do no evil.

Some lawmakers and some activists, like Reporters without Borders, are pushing for legal restrictions on U.S. companies' partnership with the PRC, arguing that official limitations might provide a leverage for bargaining with the Beijing. The vindication of red tape laws are disputable, but what does not stand up to dispute is arguing that internet companies must retroactively disrupt consumer and industry privileges to provide evaluative data in service of a tangential legal goal.

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety," wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1759. If Congress is so keen to learn from this bit of wisdom, they would be smarter still to apply it to their own affairs, which have thus far proved far more deleterious to personal liberty and social progress, than to suppose that it knows better about optimizing online information access and freedom than the companies that invested it.

There are no brillian answers here, just more questions. So here are some more resources for those interested in pursuing this issue:

The Beckman Center
for Internet & Society, which continually pursues the question of whether the internet is a "tool for freedom or suppression" in China; Recommendations by the Beckman Center ;