Internet Ideology War: Google’s Spat with China Could Reshape Traditional Online Freedoms

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How the Internet giant could use its might in closed societies

Late last year a series of sophisticated Internet attacks emanating from China burrowed deep into the computer systems of some two dozen U.S. corporations, among them Northrop Grumman, Dow Chemical and Yahoo. One fought back. After revealing that the attacks targeted not only its core intellectual property but the e-mail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists, Google announced that it would stop censoring search results on, its Chinese-language search engine. The move led to threats by the Chinese authorities to shut down Google’s operations inside China.

The charges and retaliations seem reminiscent of so much cold war bluster, and indeed this encounter could be the first great clash of the 21st century’s two emergent superpowers—Google and China. More than a battle over territory or market share, it is a conflict over ideology, one that pits a free and open Internet that empowers individuals at the expense of existing power structures against an Internet micromanaged by those powers. “What we’re talking about here is a defense of the essence of the Internet,” says Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York and author of What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins, 2009).

More than any other organization, Jarvis says, Google has both the means and the incentive to ensure that the Internet remains open. It is also one of the few organizations with a broad enough online presence to define the standard operating rules of the Internet, explains Rebecca MacKinnon, a researcher at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. Google is “the first mover in so many different sectors,” she says. “It can set the norms for how open one can be online.”

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