Google Searches for a Foreign Policy


WASHINGTON — When Google announced last week that it would shut its censored online search service in China, it was doing more than standing up to a repressive government: it was showing that, with the United States still struggling to develop a foreign policy for the digital age, Internet companies need to articulate their own foreign policies.

Who has more to lose in the showdown over Internet censorship?

Google is hardly the first American company to stray into the State Department’s bailiwick. Since the bad old days of the United Fruit Company in Latin America, powerful multinationals have conducted themselves like quasi-states, influencing the foreign lands in which they operate by deciding whether to accommodate or resist the unsavory practices of authorities there.

For Internet companies, that choice has been sharpened by the fact that the World Wide Web is no longer just a force for freedom and diversity but also a tool for repression. Governments use it to spy on dissidents, human rights activists, and other troublesome elements.

This change happened so fast that it left the foreign policy establishment gasping to catch up. It also exposed Washington’s deep ambivalence about information technology: while it champions the free flow of ideas in closed societies like Iran, it fears being a target for cyber-attacks by hostile governments and doesn’t want to export technology that could be diverted into military uses. Conflicted and confused, Foggy Bottom has little to offer Silicon Valley by way of support or even guidance.

”What forces Google to have a foreign policy is that what they’re exporting isn’t a product or a service, it’s a freedom,” said Clay Shirky, who teaches at New York University and writes about the Internet’s social effects. “The question is, ‘Are they going to be United Fruit?’ ” For Google, the sinister side of China’s cyberpolicy eventually came to outweigh the economic attraction of China’s market and the putative benefit of opening the Internet to a vast audience.

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