Economic globalization and instant worldwide communication through the Internet have resulted in cultural, economic, and political clashes that could promote human rights and democracy in ways never before possible.

The most recent example is the standoff between the centralized government of China and Google over the government’s censorship of search results. China requires all Internet traffic to pass through government gateways, which then filter out anything the government considers subversive. Sites which are blocked by the filters do not show up on searches at Google’s China-based website.

Google has reluctantly gone along with the rules, given that China represents the Internet’s biggest single market, but that may all change due to what many believe are government initiated hacking attacks on email accounts of various Chinese human rights activists. The attacks, which also targeted a number of publicly traded companies, were apparently a bridge too far for Google, which now says it will stop censoring search results, and seems prepared to shut down operations in China if the dispute isn’t resolved.

The attacks, investigated by security experts, were traced to hackers in China, with sources indicating a significant probability that they were initiated by the Chinese government. The Chinese government, for its part, is doing its best to downplay the dispute, simply stating that foreign companies are expected to respect local regulations and customs. In China’s centralized political environment, the government maintains the right to control the flow of all information. Meanwhile, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro stated, “The United States has frequently made clear to the Chinese our views on the importance of unrestricted Internet use, as well as cyber security.”

Regardless of the Google-China outcome, the situation clearly represents what is becoming a major factor in world development, given the global nature of business and the ability of anyone to communicate with anyone else. Centralized governments will find it increasingly difficult to maintain the type of controls that allow them to survive. Economic and technological pressures are forcing social adjustments that were previously only the result of wars. In other words, business, trade, and technology could empower the move to democracy in ways that armies never could.