Google is using Internet freedom as a rallying cry in its confrontation with China.
But the deafening silence from US corporations underscores how increasingly isolated Google looks in its hope to rewrite the rules in the country with the biggest number of Internet users.
Only GoDaddy.com, the Internet domain name and Web host company, immediately followed Google’s lead in protesting Chinese policies. It said that it would no longer register domain names in China because of new rules requiring it to collect customers’ photos. The action by GoDaddy, which has not been known for taking a strong stance on Internet freedom, contrasts with the responses from others.
Microsoft, Yahoo and others have trumpeted the general principles of Internet freedom, but none have directly echoed Google’s call for an end to Web censorship in China. And, GoDaddy aside, no other technology company has hinted at a change in business practices in China to protest regulations.
“China is a very important market,” said Jim Friedland, an analyst with Cowen & Co. “What’s the incentive for a government or another company to join with Google? There is none, and that’s why you haven’t seen it happen.”
Google’s difficulty in enlisting allies could hint at the challenges ahead for it in China, where organising broad support has in the past proved to be an effective tool for negotiating with government.
Last summer, a concerted pushback from industry groups and US officials caused China to back off from a plan to require makers of personal computers to adopt special filtering software known as Green Dam on computers sold in the country.
But US officials appeared to be taking a hands-off stance this time, calling Google’s move a business decision in which Washington played no part. The State Department, however, said it would continue discussing Internet freedom with Beijing.
Unlike the Green Dam episode, Google’s stand on censorship is not a cause with which many technology companies want to be seen publicly identifying. Many of them have much more substantial businesses and assets, like factories and warehouses, in China and thus more to lose than Google. Analysts estimate Google’s China business is a modest 1 per cent to 2 per cent of its $6.5 billion in annual net profit.
“The Chinese government and the Communist Party have a unique ability to reach out and touch companies in a way that can make it very difficult for them to do business in a market,” said a person at a business group.