It is natural for us to recoil at the sight of Western commercial interests submitting to the totalitarian whims of the Chinese government. And Google's agreement to censor its new Chinese website appears, at first, to be yet another example of a Western company putting profit before principle
The decision of the world's most popular search engine to bow to the will of Beijing certainly sends a disappointing message to democrats in China. And it inevitably opens Google to the accusation that it has betrayed its own liberal principles. Coming hard on the heels of the company's brave decision to defy the demands of the US Justice Department for access to information about its users, this certainly appears to be an embarrassing capitulation for Google.
There are, however, mitigating circumstances. Few would argue that Google could have denied itself access to China's millions of web surfers without severe financial repercussions somewhere down the line. And while it is true that Google presents itself as an ethical company, it must still answer to shareholders. Alone, this would be a pitiful defence. Free speech - like human rights - must be indivisible, and Google's executives have undermined that principle through their behaviour in China. But there are also practical reasons why Google's decision was the best it could have made in this imperfect world.
The website's users in China will be told that their search results have been censored. The determined will almost certainly find ways around this, either by logging on to foreign-based search engines or keying in subtler searches. In truth, the entire concept of "censoring" the internet is unrealistic. The Chinese state's belief that banning searches for words such as "democracy" will prevent its people discovering the concept, shows how little it understands this technology. Even closing dissident websites is futile. New ones appear at an astonishing rate. Many permitted sites will contain links to unauthorised ones. Policing this mass of diverse information is like collecting sand with a sieve.
We must, of course, be wary of colluding in China's shameful repression of its own people. And when Yahoo last year provided the Chinese authorities with the e-mail account information of a Chinese journalist who was later convicted of violating state secrecy laws, a line was clearly crossed. Westerners must also never become apologists for the regime in Beijing. It is nauseating to hear an increasing number of businessmen claim that China must "find its own way" to modernity.
But we must also be aware of the potential of new technologies to change circumstances on the ground. From this perspective, it is better to have a censored Google in China than no Google at all. And this principle is true further afield. Mobile phones are opening up communications for the poor in remote regions of Africa and have facilitated popular revolutions in the Philippines and Ukraine. An increasing number of young people in Iran are defying the religious authorities by downloading Western music on their iPods. Popular technology is fast becoming the autocrat's worst enemy.
The situation is still developing rapidly. Very recently, Microsoft was regarded as unstoppable. Now Bill Gates's empire is under threat from internet brand franchises such as Google. It is difficult to predict where this journey will take us next. But we can be sure that it will not suit the world's lumbering dictatorships. Technology will seek out the gaps in the armour of repressive societies. The Chinese government may have won an ignoble concession from Google in its efforts to stifle free speech, but it cannot hold back the tide forever.