Netizens of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your governments, service providers and illusions.
Google versus China is a defining story of our time. Like lion confronting crocodile, the global soft power of the American internet company faces the territorial hard power of the Chinese state. Contributing to this clash are the biggest revolution in information technology since Johannes Gutenberg invented the moveable-type printing press in the 15th century, and the biggest global power shift since the geopolitical rise of the west, which some historians also trace back to the 15th century. Be sure of one thing: there will be no clear winner for some time.
In this great game of the early 21st century, we see three major kinds of player: states, companies and netizens. It's not just authoritarian states that have problems with the free flow of information; democratic ones do too. Companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft themselves have big questions to answer about the way in which they select, handle and sell the vast information resources at their disposal. I can't help wondering where Google would be today on the China issue if one of its founders, Sergey Brin, had not been shaped by his parents' experience in the Soviet Union. And Microsoft might be in a morally better place if Bill Gates had grown up in, say, Poland.
In thinking about the way information is supplied to us, we have, it seems to me, four possible approaches: (1) the state I live in decides what I can and cannot see, and that's OK; (2) the big companies I rely on (Google, Yahoo, Baidu, Microsoft, Apple, China Mobile) select what I see, and that's OK; (3) I want to be free to see anything I like. Uncensored news from everywhere, all of world literature, manifestos of every party and movement, jihadist propaganda, bomb-making instructions, intimate details of other people's private lives, child pornography – all should be freely available. Then it's up to me to decide what I'll look at (the radical libertarian option); (4) everyone should be free to see everything, except for that limited set of things which clear, explicit global rules specify should not be available. The job of states, companies and netizens is then to enforce those international norms.
At the moment, we have a combination of (1) and (2). Developments in technology will give us more of (3), whether we like it or not. (4) currently looks like a pipe dream. Nonetheless, it is to (4) that we should aspire. It's in the infosphere that the world is coming closest, fastest, to a global village, so it's the infosphere that most urgently needs a global debate about the village rules. If we don't have that debate, and have it soon, then what you get to see on your screen will be the result of a power struggle between the old-fashioned power of the state in which you happen to be, the new-style power of the giant information companies, the insurgent force of novel information technologies, and the ingenuity of individual netizens. That's a likely outcome, but not the best.