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Summary:

Everyone, it seemed, had a strong reaction to Google’s decision this week to stop censoring its search results on Google.cn. But my first thought was -– hmm, Google has turned civil disobedience into a business strategy.

Everyone, it seemed, had a strong reaction to Google’s decision this week to stop censoring its search results on Google.cn. Some were impressed with its moral stance; some found it to be too little, too late; and still others viewed it as a cynical move.

Maybe I’ve been writing about the business world for too long, but my first thought was -– hmm, Google has turned civil disobedience into a business strategy.

To be clear, civil disobedience is substantially different for a company than it is for individual citizens. Google will never face the triumvirate risks that many people who defy oppressive governments do:  jail, torture, death. Instead, Google will likely have to shut down its offices in China, a move that could cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue this year alone.

But judging from some of the ideas that shaped Thoreau’s use of the term back in the 1840s — the refusal to resign consciences to governments or to become agents of injustice –- Google is in fact acting out of civil disobedience. It’s certainly not the first company to do so; those that voluntarily divested from South Africa and other countries with appalling policies were doing the same. But Google is the first company I can think of to act on such a large scale.

Does that mean Google is acting from self-interest or altruism? My guess is both, but I’ll let that debate simmer on other web pages. I’m willing to accept that Sergey Brin is doing what he believes is right. But Google is a corporation, not a person, and its interests and motives are by definition much more complex.

Whether to practice civil disobedience is less and less of a marginal issue for companies in a global economy. The question of whether to practice it is an especially pertinent one for Internet companies to ask now –- if for no other reason than the fact that the Internet is an ideal platform for supporting protests. Back in 1998, Stefan Wray wrote an essay on electronic civil disobedience in which he foresaw how the Internet and civil disobedience would be closely enmeshed, noting that:

While it may be partially true…that participation in street actions has become increasingly meaningless and futile and that future resistance must become primarily nomadic, electronic, and cyberspacial, it is doubtful that physical street actions, involving real people on the ground, will end any time soon. What is more likely is that we will see electronic civil disobedience continue to be phased in as a component of or as a complement to traditional civil disobedience.

Call it cynical or practical, but Google, whose business is done entirely on the Internet, recognizes that evolution. Google is forced to choose sides in a battle that has been unfolding for some time – China vs. the Internet – and the side it’s chosen will win in the long run. The risks, though, lie in how long it will take for that victory to arrive, and what it will cost Google in the meantime.

Related GigaOM Pro Research:

Is Google’s China Problem a Groundswell of the Closed Internet?

Photo by Chuck Taylor via Flickr.

  1. As someone who spent a significant portion of his life practicing civil disobedience as a tactic – not a religion – your post is interesting. Even if the explanatory quote is boring – at best.

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  2. Civil disobedience, for it to be effective at all, has to have a rather large human component in the disobeying entity. In today’s age only companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and the like can wield such large human component. Given that it was relatively easy for Google to make a decision to “disobey”, one can now imagine how much of a human component harnessing that Mahatma Gandhi must have done.

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  3. While civil disobedience represents one motivation for their retreat from China, the Rand Corporation published a monograph on Cyberwarfare that offers another perspective. It’s a long document (over 200 pages); I’ve summarized some of the points below.
    http://www.hertha.com/imported-20090923233049/2010/1/17/cyberwarfare-revisited.html

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  4. Whether China censor or not censor its web content. It does not make a iota of difference to the lives of the average American citizen. We have more urgent problem like health care, jobs,crime and drugs. The media is freaking out because of their hidden economic interests.

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    1. Harvey Wong is Wrong. Human rights should be everyone’s concern.

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  5. ram shanmugam Sunday, January 17, 2010

    These computer intrusions conclusively dispel the myth that Google somehow has the smartest computer scientists in the world.

    In the cleverness matchup, we have:
    China 1
    Google 0

    This is something all recent college graduates need to take into account when they think about what company to join…

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  6. Of course google as an entity isn’t exposed to the same risks as individuals living in China… But their office staff there sure would be.

    I wonder how many Chinese people use google.com breaking through the firewall and I wonder what proportion of users this accounts for in the wake of google.cn vs baidu.

    I’m interested in this because even while i’m skeptical of Google’s genuine concern for human rights (remember, they changed when they were at risk, not when their users did), I think it helps question the rather strange logic coming from some that it is impossible to operate a large scale international business without appealing to China.

    China is a market of a billion people, sure. But as of 2004 10% of its population was earning less than a buck twenty five a day. 35% living on less than $2 a day. That shouldn’t be expected to change any time soon, given that China’s absurd economic growth hinges on massive, cheap exports. But surely people realise this heralds a huge problem on a civil level, particularly with growing inequality in different provinces.

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  7. I’m flattered you used my Creative Commons-licensed photo, but one of the conditions of its use is attribution. Please remedy this or remove the photo. Thanks.

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    1. Chuck

      I am sorry about the oversight and have the fixed the problem. It wasn’t intentional — just a case of forgetfulness. If you check the site, we are very diligent in adding a credit line for every single photo we use under CC>

      My deepest apologies again.

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      1. Thanks, Om.

        You guys do good work, and I have also enjoyed your appearances on “TWIT.”

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  8. Hello

    I’ve recently uploaded two rare interviews with the Wobblie, anarchist, and activist Dorothy Day.

    Day had begun her service to the poor in New York City during the Depression with Peter Maurin, and it continued until her death in 1980. Their dedication to administering to the homeless, elderly, and disenfranchised continues in many parts of the world.

    Please post or announce the availability of these videos for those who may be interested in hearing this remarkable humanist.

    They may be located here:

    http://www.youtube.com/user/4854derrida

    Thank you

    Dean Taylor

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