One year ago this week, on January 12, 2010, two extraordinarily important things happened. Google announced its intention to close their office in China and shut down Google.cn, their Chinese-language search engine site. Half-way around the world, an earthquake shook Port au Prince, Haiti, to its core, killing over 220,000 people. Aside from happening on the same day, the two events share a deeper theme: they demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of information and communications technology (ICT) in the world at the beginning of the 21st century.
The reason Google left China was more complicated than an altruistic support for human rights and free speech. Yes, Sergey Brin’s family had lived in the Soviet Union before immigrating to the United States when Brin was six years old, and Brin has spoken out for freedom of speech on other occasions; but as many pointed out, China’s population of over a million is an enormous potential audience. The right to search for terms such as “Dalai Lama,” “Falun Gong,” or “Tienanmen Square” alone is not enough to make a corporation pull out of the world’s most populous nation. That debate had gone on since 2006.