Here’s a very good assessment of the Google-China conflict by Nicholas Carr writing in The New Republic.
Google is being widely hailed for its announcement yesterday that it will stop censoring its search results in China, even if it means having to abandon that vast market. After years of compromising its own ideals on the free flow of information, the company is at last, it seems, putting its principles ahead of its business interests.
But Google’s motivations are not as pure as they may seem. While there’s almost certainly an ethical component to the company’s decision—Google and its founders have agonized in a very public way over their complicity in Chinese censorship—yesterday’s decision seems to have been spurred more by hard business calculations than soft moral ones. If Google had not, as it revealed in its announcement, "detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China," there’s no reason to believe it would have altered its policy of censoring search results to fit the wishes of the Chinese authorities. It was the attack, not a sudden burst of righteousness, that spurred Google’s action.
Google’s overriding business goal is to encourage us to devote more of our time and entrust more of our personal information to the Internet, particularly to the online "computing cloud" that is displacing the PC hard drive as the center of personal computing. The more that we use the Net, the more Google learns about us, the more frequently it shows us its ads, and the more money it makes. In order to continue to expand the time people spend online, Google and other Internet companies have to make the Net feel like a safe, well-protected space. If our trust in the Web is undermined in any way, we’ll retreat from the network and seek out different ways to communicate, compute, and otherwise store and process data. The consequences for Google’s business would be devastating…