Google, the Internet and Civil Disobedience As a Business Strategy

Everyone, it seemed, had a strong reaction to Google’s decision this week to stop censoring its search results on Some were impressed with its moral stance; some found it to be too little, too late; and still others viewed it as a cynical move.

Maybe I’ve been writing about the business world for too long, but my first thought was -– hmm, Google has turned civil disobedience into a business strategy.

To be clear, civil disobedience is substantially different for a company than it is for individual citizens. Google will never face the triumvirate risks that many people who defy oppressive governments do:  jail, torture, death. Instead, Google will likely have to shut down its offices in China, a move that could cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue this year alone.

But judging from some of the ideas that shaped Thoreau’s use of the term back in the 1840s — the refusal to resign consciences to governments or to become agents of injustice –- Google is in fact acting out of civil disobedience. It’s certainly not the first company to do so; those that voluntarily divested from South Africa and other countries with appalling policies were doing the same. But Google is the first company I can think of to act on such a large scale.

Does that mean Google is acting from self-interest or altruism? My guess is both, but I’ll let that debate simmer on other web pages. I’m willing to accept that Sergey Brin is doing what he believes is right. But Google is a corporation, not a person, and its interests and motives are by definition much more complex.

Whether to practice civil disobedience is less and less of a marginal issue for companies in a global economy. The question of whether to practice it is an especially pertinent one for Internet companies to ask now –- if for no other reason than the fact that the Internet is an ideal platform for supporting protests. Back in 1998, Stefan Wray wrote an essay on electronic civil disobedience in which he foresaw how the Internet and civil disobedience would be closely enmeshed, noting that:

While it may be partially true…that participation in street actions has become increasingly meaningless and futile and that future resistance must become primarily nomadic, electronic, and cyberspacial, it is doubtful that physical street actions, involving real people on the ground, will end any time soon. What is more likely is that we will see electronic civil disobedience continue to be phased in as a component of or as a complement to traditional civil disobedience.

Call it cynical or practical, but Google, whose business is done entirely on the Internet, recognizes that evolution. Google is forced to choose sides in a battle that has been unfolding for some time – China vs. the Internet – and the side it’s chosen will win in the long run. The risks, though, lie in how long it will take for that victory to arrive, and what it will cost Google in the meantime.

Related GigaOM Pro Research:

Is Google’s China Problem a Groundswell of the Closed Internet?

Photo by Chuck Taylor via Flickr.