Opposing View: Google's Big Mistake

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by: Shaun Rein

This Op-Ed originally appeared in USA Today.

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Chief Executive Steve Ballmer made clear in January that Microsoft would not follow Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) out of China: "I don't understand how that helps us, and I don't understand how that helps China."

Ballmer was right: Remaining in China helps Microsoft provide Chinese consumers with more product choice and gives him a seat at the table to help push for reform. Google's standing up so publicly and stridently is counterproductive — hurting those who want to reform China's approach to the Internet more than it helps them.

True reform in China has to develop from within. It cannot be seen as coming from the West. Like the failed economic sanctions against

North Korea, Cuba and Burma (also known as Myanmar) that prop up unsavory governments, isolating China over Web censorship reinforces the power of hard-liners.

In 2006, when Google entered China, reform-minded officials went out on a limb to give Google approval — under the condition it obey Chinese laws.

Contrary to the way Google founder Sergey Brin makes it sound, the Chinese Internet has in fact opened up since the Olympics. The government has become less scared of content, and sites such as The Huffington Post and the BBC have been unblocked. True, sites heavy with user-generated content, such as Facebook and Twitter, are now blocked, but home-grown versions have flowered because the government feels they will follow local laws.

Google's ultimatum — to let it stop censoring searches or it will leave— has cut reform-minded officials' legs off at the knees, as well as strengthening the power of officials who take a dimmer view of allowing Chinese Internet users access to sites outside China.

My greatest concern is this: As part of the jockeying to fill positions of retiring politburo members, reform-minded officials are taking harder stances on censorship laws, and the already-hard-liners are becoming more so. They can't afford to be seen as losing face for China by giving in to a foreign company's demands.

Ballmer is right — the presence of Google, Microsoft and other foreign companies has given people more choice. Choice means more freedom. Google's decision to leave ultimately limits the choices the Chinese people have online. That does not help anyone.

Disclosure: No positions