Google, China, and the First Amendment: A Strange Coincidence

American users who log onto Google.com today will see an unusual ad-promo line beneath the normal search box. It talks about the First Amendment and steers users to a site called "1 for All." Google.com home page today:


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Close up view:

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Evan Osnos of the New Yorker -- a good friend, a gifted reporter and writer, an example of the promising future of journalism, and anything else positive one would like to say (capable linguist, too) -- reported just now from Beijing that it is hard to believe that such a message is mere coincidence, coming at a time of Google's intensifying struggle with the Chinese government on free expression.

If it were not 3:45am in Beijing as I type, I would be able to talk with Evan there and say that, by improbable chance, I happen to know first hand that the timing is coincidental, rather than being a deliberate harpoon in the Chinese government's side. (I have sent him emails to this effect; presumably we'll be in touch in a few hours. By the way, except for this detail, every other part of the analysis in his column rings true to me.) Here's how I know:

In my recent cover story about "Google and the News," I mention a speech that Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, gave to the American Society of News Editors in Washington in April. I was at the speech, and along with the several hundred others in the audience I saw the presentation that occurred just before Schmidt took the stage. It was a very strong pitch for a public-awareness campaign about the First Amendment called "1 for All," which would be launched on July 1 (today). Background on the effort is here; the main idea, at a time when the news industry is having woes of every sort around the world, was to enlist big companies and big names to remind Americans of the importance of a viable free press. The campaign's promoters were asking American newspapers, broadcast stations, ad agencies, etc to donate time and space to the messages in July.

The tone of Schmidt's message to the editors, as I reported, was "we're all in this together." Ie, that Google felt it had a long-term interest in the viability of the press. Consistent with that outlook, when the "1 for All" presentation was over, I heard Schmidt tell some associates from Google that he wanted them to look into lending support to the campaign. Apparently the plan went ahead; Google is listed as one of the "Friends of 1 for All" at the 1-for-A site. 

Now it's July -- which also turns out to be the moment when Google's confrontation with the Chinese government reaches a new decision point. The official Google announcement of the campaign does say: "At a time when restrictions on speech are increasing around the globe, we think it's essential to remind ourselves that we can't take freedom of expression for granted." So, the implications of any stand for press freedom obviously challenge the Chinese government's view. But for those following the Google-China struggle, this is indeed that improbable thing -- genuine coincidence -- rather than a deliberate escalating step. And in any case, the momentum toward escalation seems powerful enough on its own.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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