What is so amazing about the news that Google will stop censoring search results in China and may pull out altogether, is that the impetus for this has nothing to do with search. Gmail accounts were hacked. IP may have been stolen. The China/Google arrangement on search results appears unaffected by the recent events.
What happened today is that Google declared China is no longer fit to be their partner. Five years ago the argument Google made was that it was appropriate for companies to respect the local laws in jurisdictions they operated in, and while China’s were distasteful, the benefits of engagement and increased information flow made the censorship requirement worth it. At the time I thought this was a really hard question and I still think it is: Where is the line between engagement and appeasement? Could complying with a requirement of censorship ever be appropriate?
Today, Google gave us one vision of how to draw the line. By (allegedly) hacking human rights activists’ email and stealing private assets, in cyberspace the Chinese government has shown themselves to be more closely akin to a criminal enterprise than a legitimate government partner. And so a compromise between speech restrictions and increased information flow that was reasonable with a legitimate partner is no longer legitimate, even though nothing about the terms of the original compromise on search has changed.
Google says “trust us” a lot and it usually drives me crazy. For today they’ve won my trust. This decision is a game changer. It will be interesting to see what happens next.