Google vs China: it was only a matter of time

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Google says it is no longer willing to censor results in China

It isn't hard to tell the difference between good and evil. Helping nuns, orphans and puppies across the road? Good. Helping Fred West lay paving slabs, working for Simon Cowell or collaborating with the Chinese government to help censor the internet? That's bad.

When Google launched in 2006, Reporters Sans Frontieres put it like this: "The launch of is a black day for freedom of expression in China… freedom of expression isn't a minor principle that can be pushed aside when dealing with a dictatorship."

Google - like many, many other big tech firms - argued that its very presence in China was a force for good. In much the same way that McDonalds and rock music eventually toppled the USSR, providing a search engine that didn't work properly would bring sunny Californian values to the moany-faced Chinese authorities.

It's fair to say that the plan didn't quite work. Amazingly, the totalitarian nutcases who run China have been - wait for it - acting like totalitarian nutcases! Google, for one, is unhappy, and it's going to stop censoring its search results right away. Inevitably that's going to mean the end of

The first of many?

Let's give Google the benefit of the doubt and assume that the move is motivated by genuine outrage, rather than Google deciding China isn't lucrative enough. Can we expect other firms to do the same, not just in China but elsewhere? Don't hold your breath.

China isn't the only place where tech firms are generally willing to ignore trifling little matters like human rights because there's money to be made.

The enemies of the internet are everywhere, and more often than not they're using western technology. Sometimes that's despite the best efforts of tech firms - the same tech that filters dodgy porn can filter democracy too - but often it's because firms collude.

In the case of China that means Google filtering its search results, Microsoft censoring Spaces, Yahoo helping the police identify and jail dissidents. None of these things has led to a noticeable softening of the Chinese authorities' approach to the internet, and you'd have to be pretty deluded to believe that they're in any way helping China become a more open, more democratic place.

As RSF put it: "firms are now bending to the same censorship rules as their Chinese competitors but they continue to justify themselves by saying their presence has a long-term benefit. Yet the internet in China is becoming more and more isolated from the outside world and freedom of expression there is shrinking."

Credit where credit's due, telling an entire government to get lost is a very brave and thoroughly laudable move, but it's just one government, and it's just one company. As RSF points out, "a score of companies in the media, technology, finance and chemical sectors" were targeted in the same attacks that got Google so angry - but so far only Google has stood up and told the Chinese to get stuffed. Given the choice between money and morals, money usually wins."

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.