So much for the good feeling engendered by the company's refusal to give search data to the U.S. Department of Justice. Google's headed for a Congressional showdown because it chose to censor its new China portal.
Rep. Chris Smith (R - N.J.), chairman of the International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee will convene hearings on the activities of U.S. Internet companies in China on February 13. This is the kind of bridge issue that could bring members of both parties together to criticize Google and its competitors.Smith said in a press release announcing he intends to call representatives of Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft, among others, said "Many Chinese have suffered imprisonment and torture in the service of truth – and now Google is collaborating with their persecutors.”
Smith comes from the right wing of the Republican party, having first won office with Ronald Reagan in 1980. He has worked since then to curb abortion and spread religious and democratic freedoms. He's also taken on Republican leaders, including disgraced former Whip Tom DeLay, when they disagreed with him. According to the 2006 Almanac of American Politics, Smith has the voted against the Republican party line more often than only seven other members of his party (albeit, he votes with the party 81 percent of the time).
But he does stand on his principles, voting againt both abortion and, unlike many conservatives, the death penalty as a consistent expression of his pro-life opinions. So this is a guy who knows a solid symbolic campaign when he sees one. Having fought to protect free expression and practice by Christians in China, it's clear he sees the Google self-censorship case is a solid foundation for making a point that American companies should not sell out human rights for a profit.
“Internet companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft attract some of the best and brightest minds to develop cutting edge technology that can be used for good throughout the world,” Smith said in his press release. “Americans need to empower those who seek the path of democracy, not stifle their ability to speak.”
I agree with Smith, even when companies have to sacrifice profits to pursue the principles that let them thrive here at home when they expand overseas. Money earned reinforcing tyranny is blood money, which investors should spurn, even if Sergey Brin says that, while it was a hard decision, censorship in China is the right one.
Smith isn't necessarily the most popular Republican, but this is the kind of bridge issue that could bring members of both parties together to criticize Google and its competitors. What remedies could they call for? It's hard to say, but just having Congress on the record in favor of treating all people, wherever they live, as having equal rights to access information would be a powerful statement.
On a related note: Check out Sergey Brin's dissembling to Fortune when asked about the excuses Google offered that it follows similar rules in Europe and the United States, particularly with regards Nazi sites and child pornography:
Brin: And we also by the way have to do similar things in the U.S. and Germany. We also have to block certain material based on law. The U.S., child pornography, for example, and also DMCA
Fortune: You actually actively block child pornography?
Brin: No, but if we got a specific government request.