SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) -- The virtual back-patting in Silicon Valley about the use of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to help protesters fight for freedom in Iran lies in stark contrast this week to the deafening silence coming from tech companies about the latest outrage from China.
Personal computer makers such as Dell Inc. /quotes/comstock/15*!dell/quotes/nls/dell (DELL 13.68, +0.03, +0.22%) , Hewlett-Packard Co. /quotes/comstock/13*!hpq/quotes/nls/hpq (HPQ 37.61, -0.51, -1.34%) , Apple Inc. /quotes/comstock/15*!aapl/quotes/nls/aapl (AAPL 142.44, +2.58, +1.84%) and Lenovo have said nothing public of any substance about China's requirement for them to install Web-censoring software on all new PCs sold in the country, despite the fact that the deadline is July 1.
And Google Inc. /quotes/comstock/15*!goog/quotes/nls/goog (GOOG 425.32, +9.55, +2.30%) has completely rolled over on China's recent demands for it to reduce the level of pornography that is searchable on its engines. It's an admirable request, until you realize that homegrown Chinese search engine Baidu.com is getting a free pass on porn in the meantime, and that the rule may simply be designed to punish Google.
It seems that once again, when it's about money -- and China -- ideals take a back seat.
Hey, business is a tough game and if everybody kowtowed to concepts like freedom, environmental responsibility, and generally "doing good," as Google claims, we'd have a world without oil producers, cigarette makers and gun companies. Imagine that.
But profit is profit. No tech company worth its executive options wants to give up a market opportunity like China, with 1 billion potential customers.
Still, the reticence coming from the tech companies about the so-called Green Dam requirement is particularly damning. It is a massive escalation of China's attempts to broaden its campaign of censorship and intimidation against its people regarding all businesses and countries with which it does business. Indeed, if they say no, the government has a convenient excuse to require its populace to just buy Chinese computers and software.
That the Green Dam software at the center of the scandal is possibly stolen by two obscure Chinese software companies from a small California software company to begin with, makes it all the more ironic. The founder of that company, Solid Oak Software of Santa Barbara, told MarketWatch on Wednesday that the company has asked all the PC makers to hold off on installing Green Dam until it can advance its allegations against the Chinese companies, but has not heard back from anyone. See latest on Green Dam issue.
China, of course, portrays the requirement as simply an effort to reduce pornography, just like its orders to Google. Sure, and this month's 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4 was just another summer day in Beijing, with plain-clothes police shoving and swearing at news reporters and photographers.
The fact is the software, in addition to carrying significant security concerns, allows China to block anything it wants on the computers it is installed on, from political sites and discussions of taboo subjects like Taiwan and the Falun Gong to the latest gossip on John & Kate Plus 8.
So instead of coming out against Green Dam, the tech companies have done what they usually do, scramble behind the scenes to avoid exposure and hope that somebody in Washington will stand up for them.
They found that on Wednesday when officials from the Obama administration stepped in. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, in a letter to the Chinese government, asked it to rescind the order, arguing it put foreign tech companies in an "untenable position" and could threaten trade relations.
They also threw out the idea that the plan could violate some of China's obligations under the World Trade Organization, eliciting at least one statement of approval from the high-tech trade group industry. We can expect the rhetoric to grow more dramatic as the deadline approaches.
It's possible China will back down before the deadline in some face-saving gesture, or even extend the deadline to give the tech companies more time. And it's possible the U.S. will initiate threats of its own if the order goes through, escalating the matter into an even bigger affair.
What's not looking possible at this point is that any of the tech companies involved, including Lenovo, which includes IBM's old hardware business and splits its operations between Beijing, Singapore and North Carolina, are prepared to stick their necks out and ask for a stop to this bullying.
For it's apparently against their business principles to disparage any potential partner or business opportunity. No matter how bleak those opportunities probably are in reality, no matter how much it might help them in the eyes of the rest of the world looking for leadership in the area of Internet freedom, and no matter what other principles might be overrun in the process.
David Callaway is editor-in-chief of MarketWatch.