After some 25 or so tweets on the topic, and reading as much on it as possible as an academics job offers; I was wondering whether I can have anything more, and more importantly anything new to say when so much has already been stated online on it.

I have been researching on impact of Internet (and free speech and networking component of it) since last several years. I have also been researching extensively on China and on Internet and particularly on the phenomenon of Google; predicted when and where wise men dared not that Internet was mightier than the sword years ago and talked about Web 2.0 and global reforms years back. Much of it has come true, and rest will fall in line…with time. So I can definitely have something new to say on it (I was saying this to myself!), doesn’t matter that Bloomberg or NYT journalists never quote me!

Doesn’t matter as long as Web 2.0 mediums are there, I was trying to encourage myself to get into the thinking hat.

Mainstream global media increasingly quote Chinese academicians now-a-days; it’s only natural that they ignore Indian academicians as India increasingly falls behind China in relative global importance.  I was desperately trying to motivate myself to think (and write this article) on how to add a new and meaningful dimension to this widely covered and followed up area.

And more so, when I held extremely positive views on Google as well as on effectiveness of most of the Chinese policies for the betterment of the Chinese people collectively. And here’s a situation where two of your favorites are clashing with each other.

Let me be upfront here…I took a position in this dispute as I failed to remain neutral. And it was and still is in favor of Google.

However I would love to see both sides reach an amicable solution, faster the better. Problem is – chances of that looks remote if most of global media is to be believed. However I can still have faith in my favorites and expect both to show the maturity to solve this complex problem for the benefit of humanity, and more importantly for the 1.3 billion Chinese people or its 384 million netizens or a fraction of it who uses Google. And I am sure both parties can keep aside their selfish interests (Google as a ‘corporate’ entity as the Wall Street views it or defending the ‘party’ in case of the one-party rule in China).

Why I took a stand in favor of Google is because I believe Google, by taking this decision, has already proved that they haven’t been thinking their selfish corporate interests in numbers and future growths in accounting numbers. If they did – no firm from the Wall Street can take such a decision, nor can any analyst from the infamous Wall Street defend it. So I find it meaningless when reputed mainstream media journalists ask Wall Street analysts to justify this decision of Google. Believe me; they only know money and growth (has there ever been a measure of growth of principles?). They simply won’t get it (as Feinberg did put it while explaining how the ‘Bailed-out Bankers’ think).

My little bit of reading over this issue also told me that many Chinese look at it as a victory of China’s homegrown technology and capabilities (in some way, it falls in the same trap of the Wall Street view). Dangerously, Google’s exit can further aggravate that. Let’s look at it beyond China and the US national interests…remember here’s a company which didn’t take-off an offending picture of Mrs. Obama, the first lady, that was coming on top of Google search weeks back. That surely was distasteful, however for some – that was freedom of speech and that’s how Google’s algorithm worked, good or bad.

I know it’s difficult to define where freedom of speech must end, more so in developing societies (it’s not developing country specific, as the sensitivity of debate on holocaust (and more specifically its ‘historical revisionism’ side in few western countries in the sense no other genocides were comparable to this one)) where many of us go by rumors and sentiments and emotions before checking (how again?) the real facts and figures, due to our socio-economic background and history of growth in human rights and in free information flow. And that can make the job of governance more difficult.

It’s the age of soft(super)power. I believe Internet has already to some extent, and going forward would do more, in reducing the importance of the B-2 stealth bombers or weapons of that class whenever disputes between nations come up. How much of a citizen’s mind any government can control (again in a stealthy manner?), more so when more and more citizens turn to be borderless netizens, is going to be the real challenge of bordered governments. Therefore the importance of controling Internet or its darling, social gatekeeper of Internet – Google becomes critically important in cases of cyberwarfare, or even to achieve any status close to that of a superpower.

As a netizen today, I trust The New York Times in defending human rights and values (thro’ free information flow) more than the United Nations or the US government, thanks to Internet as I access it from Kolkata in India. It was The NYT who broke out the news (and subsequently supported by few other western media like The Guardian) when the US government asked Twitter to postpone a scheduled maintenance so that Iran’s recent internal violence against its government could spread. Remember, the key word here was ‘a scheduled maintenance’ in Twitter that should be best left to Twitter. The issue was non-trivial; Iran and China belongs to different categories of nations; and Iran directly or indirectly didn’t threaten any of the US interests. If the US could go so far just to encash an opportunity presented by Iran’s internal turmoil to destabilize the nation more to get rid of Ahmadinejad; how far can it go if any such remote opportunity comes up against a potential superpower challenger like China?

Moreover, if such a thing were asked by another Government, more of one which is anti-US, during 9/11-like situation, would Twitter yield?

Unfortunately, Twitter yielded to the US-government request. That’s the big question today. In present age of soft superpower, in a hypothetical situation when a major dispute between the US and China leads to any war-like situation; and if any such request is placed before Google by the US government; would Google yield? Even if Google doesn’t yield on its own, can the US Government force it to yield, legally or illegally?

As that’s a hypothetical situation, no one really knows. But I hope Google will not yield in any way nor would the New York Times. Any would be challenger of the sole-superpower won’t stop at the mere intentions of Google. They surely would look for supporting evidence by the laws in the US by which Google operates and also by its infrastructure (server locations across the world and its search algorithms across these servers).

It’s the same issue why Indian government has issues in importing Chinese mobile phones, or in adopting Chinese telecom backbone infrastructure (mobile space) or even in importing Chinese power equipments in spite of techno-economic feasibility. It’s the question of trust that the supplier will be impartial in its commitment irrespective of where from in the world the customer is seeking its services and irrespective of Sino-India inter-government relationships.

There’s nothing wrong in China and its 1.3 billion people’s ambition in acquiring a superpower status or in their ambition to have homegrown capabilities that can challenge the best of the world. I rather believe it will be better for the world as it will bring in competition in these categories. At the same time, policy-makers must ensure that the zeal to do so at any cost does not reach fanatic levels, endangering the world. And China is a real smart nation, in terms of policy-making, that recognizes the dominating weigh of softpower component in the overall superpower status.

So what next in this episode?

I believe Google must implicitly or explicitly acknowledge its principle (it’s mission statement: ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ (irrespective of any vested interests; which implicitly is stated within the statement)) and ensure that it will never be another Twitter. True, so long it has proved it – at most one can say that Google behaved like a Twitter in China due to China’s local laws.

More transparency and actions are needed from China, even if they decide to move inch by inch, following a Chinese proverb. They must show that they are a nation which is open to the challenges that ‘soft superpower’ status brings in. After all, Google is merely another corporate entity, and as a corporate entity; they have done more than their bit in protecting universal principles (I just wish that they did not meet the US government representative hours before posting that blog, even if it was merely informing them about it. True, as a company, it’s also their responsibility to alert any nation if they believe any interests from those nations were targeted). As a proud nation of its history, scale, culture and importance as China today is; it must show more open mindedness in dealing with the specific allegations that Google has brought against it.

No citizen’s loyalty, more so when that citizen is a netizen, can be taken for guranteed, be it to a firm as a customer or be it to a party as a supporter. Today I trust the NYT does not mean I will trust same equally when my prior wisdom tells me they may not be impartial in reporting in a hypothetical situation when India challenges the US on some right issues. I will start trusting local sources on that topic immediately. But in India, although there are alternatives of the NYT and that lot; unfortunately I can’t think of any alternative of Google.

That’s the short-sightedness that India is known for; and that’s the meticulous level of planning China is reputed for.

If Google fails to provide that trust to all the global citizens, I would rather ask Indian government (and all the major ones globally) to think about ways and means to achieve that soft superpower status from now itself, even though it may sound prematured for India.

However that’s a distance dream for me.  I wish India rises in all fronts as China has done so far, keeping its democracy and freedom of speech. Many may think that’s a Utopian dream.

Finally I quote from Aeschylus and hope for the best in this Google-China dispute:

 ‘When right fights with right,

Dear Gods, let justice choose what’s right.’

True, most Chinese policy-makers don’t believe in God; however as long as their intention is right; we can surely find a solution to this problem, for the betterment of the Chinese people, for all netizens around the world and for all the present and future citizens of the world as well. 

Ranjit Goswami is an Associate Professor at Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, & the author of the book, Wondering Man, Money & Go(l)d

Be Sociable, Share!