Censorship, Google, and China

Reporters Without Borders (on 25 January) accused the Internet’s biggest search-engine, Google, of “hypocrisy” for its plan to launch a censured version of its product in China, meaning that the country’s Internet users would only be able to look up material approved of by the government and nothing about Tibet or democracy and human rights in China.

“The launch of Google.cn is a black day for freedom of expression in China,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said. “The firm defends the rights of US Internet users before the US government but fails to defend its Chinese users against theirs.

“Google’s statements about respecting online privacy are the height of hypocrisy in view of its strategy in China. Like its competitors, the company says it has no choice and must obey Chinese laws, but this is a tired argument. Freedom of expression isn’t a minor principle that can be pushed aside when dealing with a dictatorship. It’s a principle recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and features in the Chinese national constitution itself.

“US firms are now bending to the same censorship rules as their Chinese competitors but they continue to justify themselves by saying their presence has a long-term benefit. Yet the Internet in China is becoming more and more isolated from the outside world and freedom of expression there is shrinking. These firms’ lofty predictions about the future of a free and limitless Internet conveniently hide their unacceptable moral errors”

China has always blocked websites by imposing a “firewall” at national ISP level, which maintains a list of sites and keywords which should be excluded. It fabricates lost connections at the TCP level in such cases, making it appear that the link has dropped out. Google has previously censored its news content, and MSN prevents Chinese bloggers from posting terms such as “democracy.” Yahoo! has been cooperating with Chinese authorities for some time, even providing information leading to the jailing of one dissident.

Google has for some time owned a stake in local search engine Baidu, whose founder displays a double standard which Google clearly found compelling:

“You have to understand we are a search engine. We do not host any content. We just point people to information that is publicly available. So we are not infringing any copyrights.” He says Baidu blocks sites that are proved to contain pirated information, but he is unwilling to comply with record companies’ requests that even queries be taken out of the directory. “We list 1 billion pages, we cannot go through every one and find out if it is pirated,” he says.

However, it appears to be easier for Baidu, as well as its rivals Google and Yahoo!, to block references to sensitive political information. “As a locally operated company we need to obey the Chinese law. If the law determines that certain information is illegal, we need to remove it from our index,” Li says.

The new Google.cn service will do the same thing. Interestingly a quick check of the differences between google.com and google.cn shows quite a different result in image search than it does in web search mode.
Or it did – that happened when I first looked, but they now both seem to show the censored version Here are some images from a couple of searches:

Now offline…

The Falun Gong results from Google.com by the way, are arrests, demonstrations, and meditation. The ones on from Google.cn are anti-fg cartoons and a story and image about a 12 year old girl who was convinced by her parents and other FG members to set fire to herself. Also, while the company says it will:

post notifications alerting users that some content has been removed — to comply with local laws. The company provides similar alerts in Germany and France when, to comply with national laws, it censors results to remove references to Nazi paraphernalia

however that does not appear to be happening at least as far as images are concerned.
Update: I’ve now translated the writing at the bottom of censored web page searches, and it seems to say that some results have been omitted to comply with government regulation.

Google itself is fairly close mouthed on the issue. There is currently no mention of the matter on it’s corporate blog, and it has talked of the commercial rather than moral consequences

We firmly believe, with our culture of innovation, Google can make meaningful and positive contributions to the already impressive pace of development in China,” said Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s senior policy counsel.

In other reports Google officials have said that the service provides a “meaningful benefit to users” and talked off the record of concerns about the safety of the 50 or so google staff in China.

Google is acting as if the actions of other internet companies and the economic reality of the situation force it to bend to the wishes of the Chinese government. Actually the opposite is true – it is the economic reality of the situation which will eventually force the government to relax restrictions on the internet so long as internet companies like Google do not give in to short term greed. If it’s staff are not safe that alone should send a clear message that it is dealing with a government it should stay away from.

Google has always claimed that it will not “be evil,” and yet it is aiding one of the world’s most repressive regimes against its own citizens.

RSF makes 6 recommendations to ensure freedom of expression on the internet, and calls on internet corporations for support.

And today, from the Times Online, comes this…

Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft, took the rare step of standing up for arch-rival Google today as he argued that state censorship was no reason for technology companies not to do business in China.

The richest man in the world told delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos that he thought the internet “is contributing to Chinese political engagement” as “access to the outside world is preventing more censorship”.

Obvious, really… by contributing to censorship it is preventing more censorship?

Google could, just for example, have provided ways around the government’s blocking in the same way Peacefire does for blogs. Then it would be living up to its motto… but then Bill “Borg” Gates is too much of a corporation droid to get that one, I think. Perhaps Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin should look at who’s on their side and get worried.

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