Commentary Magazine


Google’s Moral Triumph

Google’s virile decision to stop cooperation with Chinese censors struck a pretty contrast yesterday with Hillary Clinton’s near-simultaneous speech at the East-West Center. While Google bluntly called out a moral conflict, Ms. Clinton’s speech conveniently sidestepped ideology. But those divergent morals and ideas are both powerful and problematic.

Clinton spent her speech focusing on the other sources of power — economic, political, and military. It was diplomatically savvy of her. But while morality and ideology can be approached with subtlety, they are the substance that underwrites American diplomacy. They do not need to be stridently asserted, but if they disappear altogether, America has made the biggest concession of all.

Clinton referred to the “principles that will define America’s continued engagement and leadership in the region” — but her principles seemed grounded in utility rather than moral or ideological commitment. Even her brief bone-toss to human rights fell short: she “applauds” the flaccid ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, in which even Burma has veto power. And without irony, in the subsequent sentence, she advanced her “principle” that “our institutions must be effective and be focused on delivering results.”

Compare that with the lancing statement from Google’s news-making blog. After discovering a hacking attempt that targeted Chinese human-rights activists, Google announced its decision publicly “not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech.” Furthermore, Google wrote, “We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially all our offices in China.”

That was a gutsy statement, and it forces China to take Google seriously. Like the U.S., Google knows it may suffer greatly from impaired relations with China. And like American statesmen and diplomats, the Google executives have rightly attempted for years to uphold both their ethics and their interests.

However, when totalitarian China sits in the same room as democratic America or freedom-reliant business, there are underlying and fundamental differences in ideology and morality. Temporary agreements about specific details of the relationship — though often necessary and even good — do not mean that those conflicts have disappeared. Google’s stand against the Chinese Goliath has only increased its international reputation. Hopefully, if the United States is faced with a similar immediate quandary, Hillary Clinton will respond with the same moxie.