Once upon a time the city desk at the morning newspaper was the place to call to settle bets. A city desk could expect a flurry of calls just before the bars closed. Who was Ruth Roman's first husband? Who won the 1937 Rose Bowl? What was the real name of the last Curley of the Three Stooges?
Nobody much calls city desks any longer desk men, like everyone else, hide behind voice mail and now it's Google that usually tells the curious minds who want to know that Miss Roman's first husband was Mortimer Hall, that Pittsburgh defeated Washington 21 to 0 in the 1937 Rose Bowl and the last of three actors who played Curley was Joe Besser.
But Google is important for other things, too, as China learned when the popular search engine told Beijing that it would no longer participate as a censor and would if need be leave the Middle Kingdom altogether. No more lies by omission.
Shortly after it officially told the Chinese to buzz off, the Google website answered questions about the infamous massacre at Tiananmen Square and other "sensitive" events the Chinese government pretends never happened, and tries to punish anyone who doesn't play its game. Google even got an assist from Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, who is said to be throwing her weight, such as it is, behind the campaign against China's suppression of speech (and thought). She has already met with executives of Google and its rival, Microsoft, and Cisco Systems, one of the designers of the Chinese Internet technology to talk about how to deal with China's war on free inquiry.
The Google decision is remarkable because big corporations rarely put principle above profit, or even appear to, and indeed Google's decision is probably good business in the long run. Google's business in China lags far behind the Beijing government's own search engine, which it keeps on a short leash. In China, no news is good news.
Nevertheless, after Google's announcement a steady stream of Chinese Internet users appeared at the Google headquarters in Beijing to lay flowers on the company's colorful logo arrayed on the front lawn.
Wei Jing-sheng, the Chinese dissident who lives in exile in the United States after spending 18 years in a Chinese prison cell for speaking against his government's abuse of human rights, applauded Google for taking "an important step" to protect such rights online. "Through international pressure," he said, "finally a big business in the West has come realize its own conscience. Some Western businesses thought that by making compromises with the Chinese communists' regime, they could do business as they wished. However, this is impossible because the Chinese government would not be satisfied."
In fact, Google first tried to play the fool's game. It did Beijing's work for it, keeping "embarrassing" facts off its China service, explaining in artless argle-bargle that "the benefits of increased access to information for people in China outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results." But some gratitude. Google says that beginning in September "highly sophisticated" hackers systematically stole certain company intellectual property, and 20 other financial, technology, media and chemical companies were similarly targeted.
The London Daily Telegraph reports that British intelligence agencies warned the British government three years ago that China was one of several nations trying to wriggle through firewalls guarding sensitive British government databases. Last year, the Telegraph revealed, researchers in Toronto discovered a large cyber-espionage network called GhostNet which had prowled the Internet databases of embassies and agencies of more than a hundred nations, looking for sensitive information. A month later, hackers believed to be working for the Beijing government broke into Pentagon computers and filched details of the new Joint Strike Fighter. Some U.S. intelligence officials, the newspaper reported, had tried to draw maps of utility grids across the United States.
Pulling the chain of Chinese officials is not difficult. Computers at the French embassy in Beijing were hacked last month after President Nicolas Sarkozy entertained the Dalai Lama in Paris, according the exiled leader of Tibet the high honor that American presidents have sometimes been too timid to do. But after the Chinese objected to the French objecting to the theft of its intellectual property, France apologized for having noticed. Curley and his brother stooges would have given someone a poke in the eye.