It would appear to be a case of a repenting sinner. Google, whose motto is "Don't be evil", did something which many saw as the opposite of saintly four years ago: it agreed to allow the Chinese government to censor its famous search engine in return for permission to operate in the country. Google argued at the time that it would be worse for Chinese civil liberties if it pulled out of the country entirely.
The move was widely criticised, not least by Google employees. But the company did say it would revisit this decision if conditions for free speech within China started to head in the wrong direction. And apparently they have. Google's discovery that email accounts of Chinese human rights activists that it hosts have been hacked into in recent months has prompted it to threaten to call off the entire deal with Beijing and cease operating in the country.
Google has not actually accused the Chinese government of being involved in the hacking operation. But the Chinese authorities have some serious form in this area. The Pentagon and the German Chancellor's office are just two of the institutions which claim to have been targeted by China in this way. And two years ago, the director-general of MI5, Jonathan Evans, was reported to have written to 300 UK chief executives and heads of security to warn them of electronic espionage by "Chinese state organisations".
Not everyone buys the Google line that it is acting solely out of high principle in making this announcement. Some have suggested that since Google is not the dominant search engine in China (with about half the market share of the leader in the field, Baidu) the company's rediscovery of its principles is a rather synthetic exercise, or at least one that will not cost it a great deal.
Yet the logic here is shaky. Google might not be the market leader in China, but it still makes money there; $600m according to some estimates. Moreover, the Chinese market is growing rapidly. If Google follows through on its threat to pull out, it will mean foregoing long-term strategic opportunities for revenue growth.
In the end, it is hard to refute Google's claim that it is putting its principles ahead of its immediate commercial interest. The stock market certainly responded unenthusiastically to yesterday's announcement.
Some context is appropriate too. Plenty of Western businesses – from car manufacturers to phone companies to fast food franchises – have accepted serious restrictions and direction from Beijing in return for a share of that booming market. Though Google's 2006 capitulation to Beijing attracted a great deal of public attention, it was hardly an aberration. Just about everyone – including most national governments – bend the knee to Beijing when money is involved.
As a pioneer in the information distribution business, Google was foolish to strike a censorship deal with Beijing in the first place. And perhaps the cynics are right to suspect that the firm would not be making such a fuss about hacking if it had a commanding market position in China. But none of that means the company should not be applauded for putting principles first now. For the world's biggest search engine to stand up to one of the world's most censorious regimes is something that liberals and democrats everywhere should have no reservations about applauding.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies