By refusing to accept China’s censorship for its Internet search engine, Google has sent a message to the authoritarian state and its 300 million Internet users. The hidden cost of doing business may be to sell out the values on which the business depends. It took courage for Google to refuse to pay that price and take on China so publicly, by threatening to pull out if limits on the search engine persist.

Google’s business depends on an open, global marketplace of information. China’s political system demands control of information. The two are irremediably at odds. But China’s market of Internet users (80 million of whom use Google) is the world’s biggest, and it could be argued, as Google has since opening in China in 2006, that some openness on the Internet is better than none, and may pave the way for more openness. Google had earlier agreed to banning sensitive subjects and websites.

The immediate provocation was an attack by hackers on Google, and at least 20 other big companies, aimed in large part at the accounts of Chinese human-rights activists. This is not the only such attack. Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre and SecDev, an Ottawa consulting firm, uncovered a vast computer-spy network last year, which they dubbed GhostNet, that attacked 1,295 computers in 103 countries. At the time, the Canadian researchers said that circumstantial evidence pointed to China, though they could not be certain. The new attack may or may not be linked to GhostNet or the Chinese government.

In any event, Google said it has been subject to growing restrictions in the past year. It had grown frustrated with ad hoc, arbitrary requests for the removal of information about, for instance, corrupt officials, said Ron Deibert, director of the Munk Centre’s Citizen Lab, which monitors Internet censorship worldwide. If it didn’t comply, its “domain” was taken over and users were sent to competing search engines.

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