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Can a privately held, for-profit company be trusted to act in the public good? If you use the multinational banks or energy companies as examples, then the answer by most measures would be a resounding “no.”

But what if that company is Google?

The company whose brand image is “Don’t be evil” has placed itself at the center of a geopolitical debate, and print and broadcast news and blogging outlets are awash with opinions. Issues of weapons, international trade, and human rights aside (not that any are small issues), it seems the new cold war is an information freeze.

When Google opened up virtual and physical shop in China in 2006, many questioned the company’s motives. Google itself championed social change, maintaining that despite its acquiescence to government-mandated censoring of search results, for the citizens of China some access was better than none. Now following a series of hacking attacks on Gmail accounts and other Google services in China, the company is refusing to censor its results and threatening to pull out of the country entirely.

The always spot-on Farhad Manhoo has a great article about the issue on Slate, so I won’t get into the details here. But all the reading I’ve done only leaves me with the single burning question:

Can a private company be trusted or expected to succeed where governments, the United Nations, and citizen activists have not?

Amnesty International reports that China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.” Those imprisoned are accused of offenses such as signing petitions, disseminating health information, and planning to form pro-democracy groups.

The commodity internet was formed with one explicit purpose in mind: to connect people to each other through the exchange of information. Much as the strategies of the American and French revolutions were fleshed out in coffee houses, the internet is a meeting place where ideas are exchanged and the merits of these ideas are discussed. More than that, the internet is an always-on source of the latest information on natural disasters, political news, and public health issues.

If average citizens seeking to find out about disease outbreaks, discuss government reform, or just learn about the world around them are subject to imprisonment, what then is the role of the provider of the conduit for this information? Companies should respect the laws and regulations of any country in which they do business, but what if that business is itself intellectual freedom and exchange of information?

What are the geopolitical ramifications of Google’s words and actions? If history is any indication, China will not bow to pressure from the world community based on this issue alone. But what if Google’s protest and threats are simply activism on a broad scale, designed to use their enormous financial leverage and highly favorable brand standing in order to focus attention on China’s well-documented human rights abuses?

Will the world take notice? Will the world care? Will two guys who ran an indexing server in their Stanford dorm rooms suddenly find themselves emissaries of political and human rights reform?

In the entertaining and exhaustive corporate biography, “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture” (John Battelle, 2006), Google co-founder Larry Page describes his fascination with inventor Nikola Tesla. Tesla, despite research and inventions that laid the groundwork for–among others–wireless communication, solar cells, X rays, and the modern power grid, is usually overshadowed by competitors like Thomas Edison.

In one illuminating passage, Page describes his desire from the age of 12 to invent things that mattered to people:

I realized Tesla was the greatest inventor, but he didn’t accomplish as much as he should have. I realized I wanted to invent things, but I also wanted to change the world. I wanted to get them out there, get them into people’s hands so they can use them, because that’s what really matters.

Page wanted to change the world at age 12. Now Google wants to change the world. I don’t know if it’s possible, but very few have managed to stop Google yet.

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