Last week we saw Google publicly complain about China's growing censorship of the Internet -- and worse, cyber-attacks on Google's search engine that were, in all likelihood, backed by the Chinese government. The search engine giant went so far as to threaten to leave the Chinese market if these concerns weren't addressed.
Wednesday, Clinton, in a speech carried on the State Department Web site, declared that unrestricted access to the Internet would become a top priority for the administration – and directed sharp criticism at a number of countries around the world, notably Egypt and its recent arrest of 30 bloggers, for the recent spike in Internet censorship around the world.
But she gave special emphasis to China, now with the world's largest number of Web users, calling on that government "to conduct a thorough review of the cyber intrusions that led Google to make its announcement. And we also look for that investigation and its results to be transparent."
Secretary Clinton built her case on what might be called the "Three Internet Freedoms":
1. The right of all peoples to have access to an uncensored Internet.
2. The right of individuals to exercise free speech on the Internet.
3. The right of businesses and other organizations to have access to uncensored information on the Internet in order to compete fairly.
Pretty impressive stuff, actually, and one showing a level of understanding about technology that one rarely encounters inside the Beltway. Kudos to Clinton for stepping up, in an era of kowtowing to dictators, for human freedom and (in the case of those Egyptian bloggers) liberty.
The question now, though, is whether there are any teeth in those threats.
Let's take Google first. Not to be too cynical, but getting some back-up on this problem with China (as well as some anti-trust protection) from the Obama Administration was no doubt the reason Google chairman Eric Schmidt risked a lot the company's goodwill sucking up to candidate Obama during and after the presidential campaign. In that respect, Clinton's speech can be seen as a partial payback.
But what now? Washington is hardly in a position to put much leverage on Beijing these days. The Chinese hold a ton of our debt, the Chinese market is helping prop up many of our failing companies, and Chinese power around the world is growing, even as ours is, voluntarily, on the wane. The snubs by the Chinese premier to President Obama are now even the stuff of "Saturday Night Live" skits.
So, is the U.S. really prepared to ignite a trade war with China over Google censorship? Not hardly. We'll complain, we'll threaten, but in the end we'll do nothing. China holds the cards on this one.
And Google? Will it really pull out of the Chinese market? Probably not. China is rapidly becoming the number one search user in the world as well -- and thus it is a market that Google simply can't give up. Worse, Google is already struggling against a homegrown Chinese search engine competitor, Baidu -- and walking away from what will likely soon be the world's most valuable search market would not only be foolish in the short term -- but in the long-term might create a powerful new global competitor.