03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Google and China: Reading Between the Tea Leaves

For the little we know about Google's bold decision to defy the stranglehold of censorship imposed on it by the Chinese government, there are volumes more we don't. I can imagine august business schools in years to come will dissect "The Google Ultimatum" in textbooks dedicated to corporate business strategies in challenging environments.

Make no mistake: Google has taken an audacious and difficult step for Internet freedom in support of fundamental human rights. Doing business in a global market is complicated enough without the added pressure of individual governments tearing apart the fabric of a corporation's core values and directly threatening its customer's privacy and security. Google deserves the support it gets for drawing a line in the sand and being willing to engage in a very difficult process.

William Moss, a blogger that goes by the name of "Imagethief" and writes from inside China, strips the Google move to the bone when he writes:

"Google has taken the China corporate communications playbook, wrapped it in oily rags, doused it in gasoline and dropped a lit match on it. In China, foreign companies tend to be deferential to the authorities to the point of obsequiousness, in a way that you would almost certainly never encounter in the United States or Europe."

CDT has always supported the presence of Western companies in these difficult markets because we believe that they can provide more access to information and can be more protective of human rights than domestic providers. Having said that, we've also stressed that companies have to constantly evaluate whether the demands placed on them and the activities of the governments themselves simply make it impossible to operate ethically and in a way consistent with human rights norms.

Google entered the Chinese market in 2006 with "eyes wide open," knowing they might have to acquiesce to some censoring requests. At the same time the company believed its presence would be a positive force for online expression. There has been at least some evidence bearing this belief out and many Chinese users (though not all) agree. However, the climate for free expression online in China has been deteriorating steadily in the past year; Google gave an inch in 2006, and the Chinese government has consistently tried to take a mile ever since. Three years later, it seems that Google has had enough compromise over its values and its business. Google's decision to re-evaluate its ability to honor its commitment to human rights sends an undeniable signal to other companies: not only is respecting human rights a moral imperative, human rights risks are also business risks, and ongoing vigilance on these issues is critical. If Google continued to acquiesce to increasingly strident government demands, what user would trust them?

Google has done the right thing in bringing to light the human rights risks it faces, sending a clear message to users and the Chinese government that the Great Firewall is unacceptable in the global era, and leaving its door open to discussing with China whether there is a basis for operating in an uncensored manner. If that is not possible, Google will have to make the difficult decision on whether it should discontinue its operation in China. If the end game results in Google pulling out of China altogether, it raises difficult questions about the limits of engagement and promotion of the technology itself as a strategy for expanding free expression and access to information under authoritarian regimes. However, we hope Google's daring gambit can change the current dynamic between companies and states -- democratic and authoritarian alike -- on issues of Internet freedom for the better instead.