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

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/07/google-china-and-the-first-amendment-a-strange-coincidence/59064/