In the months leading up to Google's blockbuster revelation that the Chinese government was mostly likely behind an electronic attack against the online giant and up to 30 other companies, Google was under a different kind of attack, from privacy and human rights advocates. These people continually assailed Google for ignoring the plight of a people held under the iron thumb of the Chinese government in order to do business in a country that boasts 400 million Internet users. This decision stood in sharp contrast to Google's hypocritical "don't be evil" mantra.
But when Google announced the electronic attack and, later, its decision to stop censoring Internet search results in accordance with Chinese law, these same groups began rallying around the Internet giant, describing its sudden new stance as "principled." Even The New York Times today posted an editorial describing Google's decision as "a brave move."
Had Google exited China or refused to censor Internet search results in the wake of some human rights abuse, yes, perhaps that would have been brave. Instead, Google has openly done business in this most repressive country for four years, ignoring such abuses while reaping financial benefit. Indeed, Google only left the country after it became clear that the Chinese government itself was most likely behind the highest profile electronic attack in Internet history, an attack that compromised Google's own systems. (And they haven't even really left China: Google intends to "continue R&D work in China and also to maintain a sales presence there," according to an official statement from the company.)
So let's not hurt ourselves slapping Google on the back for doing something only after its own financial and technical interests were compromised. This is a case of simple self-interest: An insurance company-style decision based solely of the risks, costs, and benefits of doing business in a country that is actively working to undermine it. That Google decided that the benefits of working with China were outweighed by the risks doesn't show any kind of moral constitution at all. It's simply a cold-hearted business decision, like so many other decisions made by this faceless, mathematically minded behemoth.
And no discussion about this event should pass without a similar examination into the non-decisions about China made by other online companies, including Microsoft and Yahoo. If Google's decision to sort-of exit from China is viewed rationally, then Microsoft and Yahoo are on another cowardly plane of existence entirely. Confronted by the fact that the online market leader was hacked by China and only then decided to leave the country, what did these two bastions of online commerce decide to do about it?
Even The New York Times editorial board got this bit right today. "Internet companies cannot enable a government's censorship without becoming a de facto accomplice to repression."