In the conflict with China over net censorship and cyber attacks, Google won.
I know the media continues to cover this story as an on-going one as it may pertain to Google’s business, their competitor’s opportunities and attempts at describing the Great Fire Wall of China and how it operates. That is just news media noise..
As a futurist I try to provide readers here with a “future look at today”. Looking through the lens of the future, Google won. Historians in the 2020s will look back at the last 3 months of confrontational dancing between Google and the Chinese government and will see it as a directional signpost of two larger forces at play in the world.
One force is the ever accelerating electronic connectedness of humanity. There are more than 4 billion people with cell phones. There are more that 1.25 billion people with access to computers. All of them connect to one another and the expectation of users is always on availability of information, communication and participation in a growing synaptic Neurosphere that is an alternative reality as real as the physical reality we grew up in.
The Chinese government’s attempts at censoring, blocking and generally altering the ability of it citizens to plug into this Neurosphere has been in direct contradiction to this force. China has historically been inward focused and has a long history of keeping the rest of the world out. They were after all the country that built the Great Wall. There is no bigger example of structural xenophobia in the history of the world.
When Google made their initial announcement in January regarding their ambivalence in continuing to accept Chinese censorship I immediately knew that this could be an event of historical significance. The company most closely associated with the Internet in the world today was taking a stand that might well risk their serving the largest national Internet market in the world. This position brought renewed and intense global attention to the often swept under the rug issue of the censorship policies and to the seemingly well documented hacking efforts of the Chinese government.
The Chinese government seemed to be caught off guard when their initial reactive response was met with even more questioning and attention. In the past 5-10 years China has felt its’ nationalistic oats and forever altered the dynamics of the global economy. They are on the verge of becoming the second largest economy in the world. This has led them to be bold toward the world and resistant to accepting what the world has asked for in return. The Google confrontation was not about economic policy, nor did it come from a nation state. It was about two issues that are hard to defend: censorship and cyber attacks. There are few nations or multi-national corporations that will support censorship and cyber attacks.
The other force for which this was a directional signpost is the Flow to Global. We have now entered the global stage of human evolution. The word “globalization” is no longer an economic term; it is now social, cultural and political. We are moving ever more toward a more integrated global connectedness, not just electronically but in all areas of human endeavor. Of course nation states are not going away; they are just getting more global in their orientation. Everywhere, citizens can have national pride. That said, when nationalism clearly takes precedent over the global concerns of humanity it is more noticed than say 20 or even 10 years ago.
In the last 30 years, China has done something no other country in history has ever done. It has gone from being a primarily Agricultural Age economy to being an economy that is Industrial age and Information age too. The United States took 200 years to do this. This means that China has muscled onto the global stage so quickly that it does not have the developed sense of global sensitivity it must now develop as it now sits at the table of super powers. It is this lack of sensitivity, combined with historical xenophobia and resistance to any outside force to tell it what to do that caused it to misread the Google challenge.
In the three months since the first Google announcement, there has been a noticeable shift in both the global perception of China and China’s resultant response to the world. Every one but China – and tentatively Microsoft – overtly or passively supported Google.. China has since signed the Copenhagen accord, is open to supporting sanctions on Iran and seems to be more adaptable to the idea of devaluing its currency. This has all happened since the Google announcement in January that it might no longer play by China’s rules.
Google might well lose revenue in the short term, but they gained the higher ground. They needed this at a time when a lot of constituencies were raising concerns about their growing power. This higher ground will serve them well. If, for example Microsoft continues to allow the Chinese government to dictate how the company can operate in China, it will be perceived through a filter that is altered. Google has shown that it is willing to lose revenue over the issues of censorship and cyber attacks.
Google might not have been viewing this episode with China through the above two macro flow filters. More likely they were feeling conflicted, did not like being attacked by a country that was also telling it what to do and of course there was the legacy of Sergey Brin’s childhood memories of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union that weighed on the cofounder as he experienced a strong echo of it in his dealings with China. Whatever the internal dynamics were, Google won.