Man or Mouse? Google’s China Move a Major Challenge to Yahoo, Microsoft et al

It is fashionable for corporations to declare their firm intentions to make the world a better place. If only one’s competitors wouldn’t embark on bad practices, then one would not have to copy them, or so the disclaimer usually goes.

Google’s threatened move out of China disrupts this excuse. You can bet that there are heated arguments right now in the strategy rooms of its Western competitors in China (Microsoft, Yahoo for search advertising according to this article) whether they should follow suit or shut up, kowtow and take the market share that’s up for grabs. Will men or mice emerge?

This could well turn out to be a watershed event for how the internet will look in 2020. If nobody follows Google’s bold move and nothing much happens, there is a good chance that more and more content filtering will be added to the internet, in China and otherwise. That’s the trajectory we are all on, unfortunately. (e.g. see this Wikipedia map on censorship) There will be workarounds, and hacks, to get at content anyway, just like in China today, and counter-hacks, and counter-counter-hacks, and so forth, but the net result is that content flows less freely.

On the other hand, if say, Yahoo declared their solidarity with Google today and threatened the same thing, it might well start an avalanche of Western firms saying, like Google, “enough is enough”. Imagine you have to defend, to your (mostly Western) users, that while the big guys are doing what your users think is the morally right stance, you are not. Not a great way of gaining users who love you. Yes, it would hurt to leave China; but it would also hurt to stay and lose Western customers instead.

In the best case, it would substantially slow and perhaps stop more censorship in the world outside of China for some time.

This is the kind of event that might have major ramifications for technology and society for years to come, which is why I’m putting it on this blog about technology in 2020.