The past two days brought interesting technology news on the freedom front. Yesterday, Tom Zoeller wrote about the willing role that the major internet companies play in China’s massive and sophisticated campaign to block its citizens from ‘forbidden knowledge.’
Though the article centered on Microsoft’s shameful acquiescence in a Chinese directive to shut down the MSN Spaces blog site of a Chinese dissident (bravo for Robert Scoble telling his friends at MSN that they were wrong), Google came in for its share of shame:
Microsoft was only the latest technology company to be criticized for cooperating with the Chinese government. Yahoo, Cisco and Google have all been accused of helping to maintain what the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a Congressional investigatory body, has called “the most sophisticated Internet control system in the world.”
When cornered by the press, these companies mouth platitudes about the necessity for them to follow the customs, practices and laws of their host countries. As if freedom and democracy are ideas which can be confined to a single nation or excluded from another.
Last year, Reporters Without Borders noted that China shut down the Google News service there when it published headlines deemed unacceptable by authorities. Google, along with the others, censors search results in order to avoid offending Chinese “sensibilities.” You won’t read anything about ‘Falun Gong’ or the ‘Dalai Lama’ on Google’s China service.
Contrast this with Google’s gung-ho defense against a Justice Department subpoena requesting search results from individual users who may be involved in a pornography investigation:
The Justice Department has asked a federal judge to compel Google, the Internet search giant, to turn over records on millions of its users’ search queries as part of the government’s effort to uphold an online pornography law.
Google has been refusing the request since a subpoena was first issued last August, even as three of its competitors agreed to provide information, according to court documents made public this week. Google asserts that the request is unnecessary, overly broad, would be onerous to comply with, would jeopardize its trade secrets and could expose identifying information about its users.
Let me make clear that Google’s position on this matter is entirely laudable. It is also shameful that America Online, Yahoo and MSN have cooperated with the government.
But doesn’t Google display a double standard here? It is willing to compromise its values regarding the the need for information and knowledge to be freely available to all (except the snooping Justice Department, of course) for China’s sake. But it maintains a gold standard on the subject within the United States.
I should also make clear that in order of magnitude, Yahoo’s behavior in China has been the worst because they actually provided critical information allowing the Chinese to identify, arrest, try and imprison a dissident. Second in order is Microsoft, who closed down the offending Spaces site. And third is Google which merely launders its searches to cleanse offending phrases. But nevertheless, Google is the one we somehow expect most from because of their history, their reach, and their ideas (“Don’t Be Evil”). That’s why the company’s behavior in China is so disappointing.
Google’s site declares emphatically:
We’re committed to providing thorough and unbiased search results for our users; therefore, we cannot participate in the practice of censorship.
I guess they need to amend that to “we cannot participate in the practice of censorship…except in countries which practice it.”
Okay what would you like, not give the Chinese access to Google? The Chinese government won’t care and the people won’t know. At least access to Google in some form (note that Google will mention when results are censored) will promote a more open society than what it’s now.
Also this restriction of the Chinese government only applies to the Google server run in CHina. So the Chinese people can still get past the restriction by accessing the Google.com server in the US.
Richard Silverstein says
Why will Chinese censored access to Google promote a more open society when the very ideas that would do so are inaccessible to its Google users? You seem to argue that Google possesses some innate magical power to create democratic values in China. But the only way Google can do this is if it provides free & unfettered access to the ideas that underpin these values.
You mean to tell me that access to Google’s U.S. server is freely available in China? I highly doubt this. And does Google’s U.S. server (if they CAN access it) provide the Chinese access to Chinese language sites or only English language?