Google continued its moral stand against censorship this week, releasing a white paper linking free speech and free exchange of information to free trade and economic growth. This isn’t the first time Google has challenged authoritarian dictates; it has been most vocal regarding Web access in China but also points out that “more than forty governments now engage in broad-scale restriction of online information.” Instead, this white paper is notable because it signals a smart shift in argumentative tactics, an attempt to reach even the most ruthlessly realpolitik foreign-policy advocates.
Google’s white paper is not addressed to authoritarian governments; it is addressed to lawmakers in the United States and Europe; it is also policy-prescriptive. Bob Boorstin, Google’s director of public policy, outlined the company’s argument in a blog post:
The premise [of this white paper] is simple. In addition to infringing human rights, governments that block the free flow of information on the Internet are also blocking trade and economic growth. …
Over the last two decades, the Internet has delivered tremendous economic and trade benefits. It has driven record increases in productivity, spurred innovation, created new economies, and fueled international trade. In part this is because the Internet makes geographically distant markets easy to reach.
But this engine of economic growth is increasingly coming under attack. … Governments are blocking online services, imposing non-transparent regulation, and seeking to incorporate surveillance tools into their Internet infrastructure. These are the trade barriers of the 21st century economy. …
We urge policymakers in the United States, European Union and elsewhere to take steps to break down barriers to free trade and Internet commerce. These issues present challenges, but also an opportunity for governments to align 21st century trade policy with the 21st century economy.
This argument is an effective reminder to Barack Obama’s administration. Especially regarding China, the administration has implied with its actions that human rights cannot be allowed to interfere with bigger priorities – economic priorities, most of all. But if human rights and economic development are as closely related as Google suggests – something for an intelligent reader to consider – then the Obama administration has little excuse for its reticence. Part of Google’s corporate philosophy is, you can make money without doing evil. This argument poses the question: will the United States lose money by not standing up to evil?
Moreover, Google’s argument is important because it challenges Beijing’s assertion that any statement about human rights is an encroachment into Chinese domestic affairs. If Chinese censorship obstructs the legal flow of world trade, then censorship becomes by default an international issue.
Google’s new argument suggests that, in addition to having a justification to speak out about human-rights violations, Western governments have an interest in doing so.