Google's Creative 'Human Rights' Strategy

You gotta give Google kudos for coming up with a creative way to crack the Chinese market.

Google Inc.'s China headquarters in Beijing
AP
Google Inc.'s China headquarters in Beijing

Maybe I'm just too jaded to believe this is all about the "Do no evil" company trying to protect human rights in China, and now Iran, but somehow I believe there's something far more complex going on here.

And Google's approach, if it works, borders on sheer genius.

This all started with Google's claims of a widespread cyber attack waged by the Chinese government against Google's China properties and clients. It was part of a massive, coordinated attack that Google said targeted almost two dozen companies. I have no reason to believe the attacks didn't occur.

But this somehow snowballed into an attack on human rights, rather than some corporate espionage or electronic vandalism thing. And that's where the story gets really intriguing.

We may want to paint this as a human rights proxy, but it's much more about America versus the rest of the world.

Or at least the rest of the world that hates us.

Let's not forget that France has gone after Google, Apple , Intel and others, claiming predatory behavior or monopolies, ostensibly so they could slow down American momentum and give homegrown companies a leg up to compete. Many here in Silicon Valley have complained that's the main function of the European Commission and its actions against Intel and Microsoft , and its investigations into Google and Apple. Remember those billion dollar fines slapped against Intel and Microsoft didn't get distributed to the so-called "victims" of these companies' behavior, the consumers and companies the EU claimed to be defending. It all goes to the EU. What does that tell you?

But in the case of Google, because it's China, and now Iran, and it involves the internet and communication, and more loosely freedom of speech, a coveted tenet of America's societal fabric, we paint these actions as human rights attacks. That seems to resonate as an argument much more effectively than whining that "that government isn't being competitively fair to us."

This is about money and competition and market penetration first, human rights second, third or fourth.

In China, Google has been at a severe competitive disadvantage since it entered the market in 2006. After trying to wrest any meaningful marketshare from China's version of Google — Baidu — with very little success, the company cries human rights "foul," enlists the media-sexy term "cyber attacks," and quickly counts no less a champion than US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to do its fighting in China for it.

Google has had deep difficulty cracking the Chinese market, and it has come up with no effective way to staunch Baidu's juggernaut. Now it has turned the whole thing into a diplomatic, rather than competitive, issue.

Flash forward to yesterday: Iran only bolsters the case.

Keep in mind that none of this could have strategically worked during the Bush Administration, which took such a hands-off approach. But now, with President Obama and his administration of busy-bodies and "do-gooders" (I'm being a little sarcastic here) companies are finding an ironic ally in an activist Washington as they try to capture even more global marketshare and face increasingly aggressive governments trying to slow US corporate momentum.

By the way, tech companies spent $111 million to lobby lawmakers in Washington in 2009. Antitrust all-stars Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Oracle were all in the top 10, with Microsoft spending the most ($5.85 million), followed by Oracle ($4.39 million) then Intel ($3.89 million), and Google ($3.2 million), according to Opensecrets.org, the Website of the Center for Responsive Politics.

In fact, Google's lobbying budget jumped more than 41 percent from 2008 to 2009 even as other corporate expenses declined. Looks like Google is looking for a return on that investment.

Maybe this is all too cynical. But if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

If international companies are using their own governments as powerful marketplace tools to bolster their competitive positions, why shouldn't Google employ the same strategy? It's a dangerous game to play though. Trade wars serve no one. You can't have a "little government involvement," and tech companies have always been wary of a cozy relationship with the Feds.

What's convenient today could become very inconvenient tomorrow, and that's what makes Google's strategy today so interesting.

But don't be fooled: Despite massive media coverage to the contrary, human rights might be a welcome by-product of all this, but it is certainly not the central issue.

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