by Mark Scheinbaum
April 1, 2010
Panama City, Panama
GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME GOOGLE
PANAMA CITY, PANAMA, April 1, 2010 -- Editor's Note: Search engine company Google, after a long period of negotiation, last week ended censorship of Websites sought by Chinese citizens on the mainland.
Today, AR Senior Financial Correspondent Mark Scheinbaum takes a look the impact and origins of Google's decision.
But every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men who have baffled the attempt of tyranny, and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors, that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right to liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world at least) by speaking and writing truth."
Google co-founder Sergey Brin is fighting perhaps the most important battle for free speech and free expression since the days of John Peter Zenger or Nathan Hale.
Born under Soviet rule and viewed by many as all capitalist-all-the-time, Brin has drawn a line atop the Great Wall of Information and told the Peoples Republic of China and its Marxist government that ideals might just be more important than money. Lots of money. Lots and lots of money.
Personally, I never understand the technology and business plan of Google and wondered in the early years if this was just the latest Internet-era "bubble" carrying the excesses of the "dot.com" boom-and-bust to the ultimate ridiculous level of hype.
Yet every time I turned on my computer I found myself going to Google for information, at last throwing in the cyber towel a few years ago and simply making it the home page on my one laptop and three desktop computers.
Academicians talk about information "gatekeepers." Google is the gatekeeper of the Informationb Age, the world of science, humanities, and ideas around the globe.
In the past two weeks I have twice visited La Tosca elementary school in the Panama district of Torti next to the Darien border. The 35 students have eager smiles and a thirst for learning. The same kids have sporadic running water, no electricity, few textbooks, and one teacher for six grades.
Thanks to the Panama Canal Kiwanis Club there have been improvements, but it is the world of Google and its ilk which will make the most change.
"We will use a Mexican distance learning model, probably a portable generator linking computers to a nearby cell phone tower, and through the Internet extend compulsory education from sixth to ninth grade - all because of computers,"
Sergey Brin is facing important financial and political challenges from China; he is taking a stand against an overly-zealous censorship scheme in Australia; in these and other ways, he has given a global voice to the fight everywhere for intellectual and academic freedom.
In a remarkably candid press interview for a billionaire entrepreneur, Brin last week explained to the Wall Street Journal that on a personal, moral, and ethical level, helping the Chinese filter, manipulate, and blatantly censor search content was not why he went into business.
Although Brin said that "cyber attacks" against his firm in China were "the straws that broke the camel's back," it was his family history that influenced him as much, or more than Chinese power-plays.
Brin, 36, remembered his Soviet youth and the pre-dawn knock on the door that terriied his family. Police were harassing his family, and he learned that his father had come face-to-face with institutional anti-Semitism.
He came to America and re-definied the American dream. Brin changed the way we "turn the (electronic) pages" for our daily news and information, Brin had the nagging feeling that even if his firm and shareholders suffer, there is something out there bigger and more important than the bottom line. To Brin the fine line between cooperation and censorship finally became more important than the bottom line which could be damaged by irritating the world's potentially largest consumer market.
A Reuters account, read around the world, brought the issue of China v. Google as expressed in the WSJ to a wider audience: "The newspaper says Mr. Brin and other Google officials won out over some who believed Google should stay in China. It announced this week it would no longer censor and routed its China traffic through Hong Kong."
While China has made huge strides in some areas such as poverty, he tells the newspaper, "nevertheless, in some aspects of their policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see the same earmarks of totalitarianism, and I find that personally quite troubling."
Lest one think that elevating Brin to the role of American patriot is pushing things a bit, remember that Brin has never been considered Mr. Goodie Google Two Shoes. It was only back in 2006 when Google officials were hemming and hawing and doing the Congressional Tap Dance on how they alone could conquer the problems of Chinese censorship, one that left Yahoo and others in a public-relations graveyard where they'd just buried their good intentions gone bad.
On Feb. 15, 2006, Elliot Shrage, Google's public affairs and global communications director, told the House Committee on International Affairs subcommittee on Global Human Rights that "... I want to acknowledge what I hope is obvious: Figuring out how to deal with China has been a difficult exercise for Google.
"The requirements of doing business in China include self-censorship - something that runs counter to Google's most basic values and commitments as a company. Despite that, we made a decision to launch a new product for China - Google.cn - that respects the content restrictions imposed by Chinese laws and regulations.
"Understandably, many are puzzled or upset by our decision. But our decision was based on a judgment that Google.cn will make a meaningful - though imperfect - contribution to the overall expansion of access to information in China."
As the designated shill for Google becoming a reluctant partner in screening content for Chinese readers, Shrage added that, "we decided to try a different path, a path rooted in the very pragmatic calculation that we could provide more access to more information to more Chinese citizens more reliably by offering a new service - Google.cn - that, though subject to Chinese self-censorship requirements, would have some significant advantages. Above all, it would be faster and more reliable, and would provide more and better search results for all but a handful of politically sensitive subjects." You can read his unedited comments, which now seem quite lame to me, and judge for yourself.
But the other reality, aside from the metamorphosis of the "do no evil" Google ethic, is that young people "get it" when old folks usually don't or won't expand their horizons.
I was tapped to teach two university classes this semester in political science in Panama to students from a dozen countries. Only 15 percent could write a sentence about Albert Einstein or Winston Churchill.
Yet 75 percent correctly identified a rather obscure business story about the ongoing dispute of Google v. China. When asked, they could identify some of the key issues. As intellectually dishonest as it might be, they could not connect Prof. Einstein or Winston Churchill to their modern lives.
Google is a different story. They knew the name of Jennifer Lopez'es current and former lovers, the travails of aging Mexican heart-throb Marco Antonio Solis, and the sports cars of their favorties sports stars. They also knew that when people mess with Google they are messing with their lives.
I usually doubt it when people tell me they remember family vacations when they were just three years old, or being bounced on great-granpa's knee at the picnic at age four. Psychologists used to teach that until perhaps age of four or later it is tough for a child to differentiate actual memories from photos and stories repeated about the event. But by age five and certainly six, our lifetime synapses of emotional response are well-formed. Yes, Mom, I do remember our cross-country auto trip when I was six years old!
With his family, Sergey Brin emigrated from the Soviet Union when he was six; little did the Politburo know tens of billions of dollars in future tax revenues were walking out the door with that six-year-old. But I'd bet persecution by a totalitarian regime is among his most vivid memories of his Russian childhood. He did not leave the Soviet Union to assist China in maintaining an old and repressive regime.
In 1979, when Brin was six, his family felt compelled to emigrate to the United States. In an interview with Mark Malseed, author of The Google Story, Sergey's father explains how he was "forced to abandon his dream of becoming an astronomer even before he reached college. Officially, anti-Semitism didn't exist in the U.S.S.R. but, in reality, Communist Party heads barred Jews from upper professional ranks by denying them entry to universities. Jews were excluded from the physics departments, in particular..." Michael Brin therefore changed his major to mathematics where he received nearly straight A's. However, he said, "Nobody would even consider me for graduate school because I was Jewish." The Brin family lived in a small, three-room, 30 square meter (350 square foot) apartment in central Moscow, which they also shared with Sergey's paternal grandmother. Sergey told Malseed, "I've known for a long time that my father wasn't able to pursue the career he wanted", but Sergey only picked up the details years later after they had settled in America... ."
Like Mr. Brin, I often throw up my fiscal arms in capitulation to the China giant. I don't intellectually support Taiwan as much as I used to, and when I stroll Walmart or PriceSmart I end up with Chinese products in my cart. I value my ethnic Chinese-Panamanian friends and associates, and have`genuine interest in their regular visits to their factories in China.
But in the back of my mind I am always looking to buy my grandkids the American book, the Mexican or Swedish toy, the Colombian or Argentine educational game, the Canadian shirt or backpack. Usually I fail, and usually I am weak, and let 's face it, usually I go for the easiest deal at the best price, China's political regime notwithstanding.
Then again, I never heard that knock on the door when I was six years old. Thank you, Sergey.
Mark Scheinbaum is the American Reporter's Senior Financial Correspondent.