Google's move to redirect visitors from its China website to a new service in Hong Kong, where they can access uncensored search results may be significant more for its long-term commercial impact than for its political overtones. A loss of revenue from China at current levels should not be a cause for worry, given that it is only a small percentage of the whole. Yet the comments made by Google co-founder Sergey Brin after his company decided to stop filtering search results on its China website are important. He described services and information as America's most successful exports, and sought the Obama administration's intervention to ensure that these are allowed to flow without any barriers. In any case, there has been no closure of operations by Google in China. It is also not a market that it is likely to ignore in the future. There is genuine worry, though, that Google's decision to stop filtering search results (required by Chinese law) and to relocate its service to Hong Kong may politicise commercial issues. Clearly, China's importance on the online landscape cannot be exaggerated. As a country with 385 million Internet users, most of them having access to broadband (minimally defined), and the world's biggest mobile phone market with nearly 750 million connections, it offers great value to business. Foreign companies offering online services acknowledge it and have refrained from disengaging from this fast-emerging economy over political issues. Moreover, it is relevant to point out that, although advocates of freedom justifiably demand unfettered access to everything on the Internet, oversight and some level of governmental control is maintained.
As the Internet evolves, governments are challenged to respond to the new information culture without curbing free speech. From a time when relatively few producers generated content for a large number of consumers, the world has come a long way and is now a networked web of people who themselves produce and share content. The explosive growth in the use of mobile devices to create and share text, pictures and videos via the Internet has added a potent dimension to this ongoing revolution. Yet nothing of what is produced is really shielded from scrutiny. It is well known that governments can and do access and monitor the enormous amounts of data that flow through digital pipes including e-mails. Google services are no exception. What governments need to acknowledge is that the mindset of traditional controls on the movement of goods and services across borders is outdated, because information moves across national borders instantaneously.