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General Interest, Politics

GOOGLE – I, CHINA – 0: THE BATTLE OVER WHO OWNS THE INTERNET

In a shocking development, a huge international corporation grew a conscience. The search engine Internet giant Google, who had earlier bowed to the Chinese government’s demand that they censor their content in China, reversed themselves and refused to alter their site. They shut down their Chinese operation and directed users to their Hong Kong site, which, though still in China, is not censored. This is a huge deal and an international confrontation between a brand new Superpower feeling its oats and a communications giant that dominates the world wide web, these days the most essential and influential communication and marketing tool in the world.

The whole idea of the Internet is the free and uncensored flow of information for the benefit of all, a place where anyone can communicate and do business across the entire globe in an instant. Somehow, miracle of miracles, nobody owns the damned thing, by its nature no one can own it. Since no one owns the world wide web, no government can nationalize it. There’s nothing to take possession of with armed troops. It is the most insidious of enemies; silent, invisible and completely democratic, not caring one way or another who reads or writes any of the information it contains. Anything goes on the internet, and it’s just getting started.

The prospect of where it will go from here must scare the shit out of tyrants. Think of how rapidly it has changed and progressed from one year to the next, and how a typical web site of 5 years ago is antiquated and low tech by today’s standards. Without realizing it, computer users all over the world have constantly learned new and better computer skills to keep up with the flood of new technology. As astounding as it has become, even more awe-inspiring is its potential.

Now there’s things like Twitter, the slacker’s silly pastime in America, but something that proved to be a very effective communication tool in times of global crisis. During last year’s riots in Iran, for example, their government tried to black out any news broadcasts of any sort. Turns out they didn’t figure on Twitter and, in 140-character bytes, the cat was out of the bag on some fairly nasty brutality by Iran’s Republican Guard. The same ever-changing technology that keeps us all on our toes trumps the tin pot dictators’ efforts to suppress this massive and very indifferent flow of data.

The Internet doesn’t give a crap about cultural differences or the whims of leaders, it’s just there, and people will find a way to access it. As lethal as armies, information and education can topple oppressors. When you’re in the business of telling a country the sky is supposed to be yellow, the last thing you want is more information about the outside world handy. The tighter they control it, the quicker people upgrade their skills to beat the censors.

Granted, some totalitarian governments can and do censor the web every chance they get, mostly having to do with sex and politics, but they require the cooperation of large corporations to do that. As anyone who has even heard of a corporation knows, lots of money turns their principles into loose guidelines at best. Ironically enough, most of the world’s computers are manufactured in China. In exchange for cheap labor and overhead, computer manufacturers agreed to install a censorship gizmo in computers sold to Chinese citizens so they couldn’t hook up with the world they are supplying with computers.

One after the other, they caved. Last year alone more than 40 million personal computers were sold in China. In order to gain access to 1.3 billion potential customers, corporations knowingly participated in beginning the process of bringing the Internet under control. Control means ownership. Even the dominant e-mail carrier and search engine Yahoo caved in, along with Google, betraying the wide-open medium that made them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. They were biting the hand that fed them billions.

Then Google changed the game by growing a conscience and a pair of balls. They told the Chinese government to stick their censorship where the sun don’t shine. Few governments can be as unreasonable as the Chinese government and right now they are at the height of their power, the second most influential country on Earth. Never in her 5,000 year history has China wielded even a fraction of the global power and influence she enjoys today. Modern China is a manufacturing and financial powerhouse, much like Japan of the 1980s.

Lucky for the future of the Internet, the people who run Google grew up in America, the most influential nation on Earth and a place where people pick up radical notions like Liberty, Equality, Freedom of The Press, Free Speech and so forth. Although it is hard to portray a mega-rich corporate giant as some sort of David standing up to Goliath, it’s at least an Us vs. Them deal. Google is doing the right thing and should be applauded and supported in this confrontation. Supported by their fellow communications giants and computer manufacturers too. They’re rich and successful with or without China, and got to be so in an atmosphere of free and open exchange of ideas.

Even if the Chinese government doesn’t blink and banishes Google from their shores, Google wins. It’s still Google, the preferred search engine all over the world. China is all about commerce these days, and without Google they are handicapping themselves. World opinion seldom sways the new Commu-Capitalists in China, but loss of market share gets their attention every time. World opinion will make Google even stronger in what has become an international debate over Internet censorship. The Google executives hold the high ground, the side of no private or national ownership for the web.

They have to remember that they didn’t get to be Google in an environment of censorship, ownership and control. LIke brilliant innovators in every age, they came up with the right product at the right time, made a huge fortune and became a household name, synonymous with accessing accurate information. Its users trust Google to direct them anywhere on the web they choose to go and billions of people use their services many times a day, every day. The advertising revenue alone handled and distributed by Google is in the hundreds of billions a year, with their take over $10 billion, about $1.30 for every person on the planet.

These people have a huge stake in keeping the internet just as accessible and freewheeling as it has always been, the glorious make-it-up-as-you-go-along dynamo that has literally transformed human life. It is that powerful, that universal, and such major a step in history that the beginnings of the Internet will overshadow everything else that happens in this era, as dramatic as they may seem to us. The story of the Internet is bigger, more important, and permanent.

We might not recognize the internet 100 years from now, but we are living the beginnings of the next Age of Man, like the first guys with Bronze swords back in the day, or deck hands on the Santa Maria. The temptation to seize control of this behemoth like the Conquistadors took the New World will always be a powerful temptation for powerful men. Someone somewhere had to stand up to them and  say “no more!” To our surprise and delight, it is Google. In the battle for ownership vs. no ownership of the Internet, it’s Google – 1, China – 0.

If they lose, we lose, because that will be a blow to freedom of information and the beginning of the end of this People’s Forum, the Internet as we know it. The Chinese government won’t be the last to try to own and control the web, and it is in everyone’s interest whose life is even remotely touched by the Internet (in other words: everybody everywhere) to thank them to keep their grubby hands to themselves. It is refreshing to see a corporation take a stand on something besides their bottom line, to take the initiative in a battle over (!) ethics. Most of us thought that went out of style in corporate circles back in the ’60s. Kudos.

If you want to see how all this turns out, just Google it. If you can’t, we lost.

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