Friday, October 01, 2004

Google China helps Chinese government to censor the web

The excellent independent Chinese news site, The Epoch Times, reveals that

An Internet monitoring group has discovered that the Chinese-language version of The Epoch Times and other independent Chinese news media are not available inside China on the popular search engine Google.

The censorship was discovered by Bill Xia and volunteers at his company, Dynamic Internet Technology.

When asked about the implications of this issue, Xia told The Epoch Times, 'I'm worried that Google is bowing to the pressure from the Chinese government. That's a bad thing. For the users in China, this will reinforce China's media control in creating a fake reality. I call it the China Matrix.' According to Google spokesperson Debbie Frost, the search engine chooses not to display results for sites that are unavailable in China. 'Google has decided that in order to create the best possible search experience for our mainland China users we will not include sites whose content is not accessible, as their inclusion does not provide a good experience for our News users who are looking for information,' she said in a written statement. This explanation worries Xia, who says, 'Even though those websites are themselves blocked, the title and description presented when the search results are returned on Google are very important. It helps Chinese people see that there is something beyond what they are shown by media in China. By blocking that information, it creates an illusion that the whole world is in line with Chinese state-run media.'

An editorial on the Epoch Times goes into the implications:

Josh McHugh in the January 2003 edition of Wired discussed Google's maxim of 'Don't be evil.' This is a pretty good saying, but complicated to carry out, he pointed out, when dealing with, among other things, repressive regimes like China. Many in the U.S., both in government and in the corporate world have the idea that if we do business with a corrupt government, then we'll reform them. It hasn't worked out that way in China. It seems the opposite happens, and the government corrupts you. Yahoo a few years back complied with the PRC's censoring. Cisco equipment forms the backbone of China's Great Firewall. Google had a choice to make when it started its version of Google News for China. It could have displayed all possible news outlets and let the Chinese government make its own choices. Or it could have filtered out sites blocked by the Chinese government. It chose the latter. Google may have thought it was benefiting the user by not showing sites that can't be accessed. But is this true? When you search on Google News, you get a summary of the article. For example, if I search for 'Google news' a number of the results are about the Google 'censoring' issue. From just reading the summaries, you get a sense of what's going on. In China, you don't get that sense, because sites are omitted. Which sites? I asked Google for a list, but was not given them. So in China you get a false sense of reality. Bill Xia of DIT talks about the China Matrix. As in the movie, The Matrix, where people took as real the world presented to them. The official goal for Google News China is 'providing the user with the best search experience possible.' To me, ensuring a 'best search experience' sounds a bit too much like what the Matrix has to offer. What if I'm searching for the truth? Each individual has a choice. Do we want to know the truth or do we want to live in ignorance? Google's decision to censor hinders the ability to make that choice. If Google News would show search results from banned websites then people in China would have an idea that there is something beyond the China Matrix. And then they might try to find the truth

"Don't be evil." It sounds so good, and then someone offers you power and influence... in this case, access to the Chinese market. One more comment: I like the idea of people in the US government and US companies hoping to reform the Chinese government. I'm sure they do hope to do this, but I doubt that most of the reforms they have in mind are the ones Chinese citizens would like...

Anyway, now we have the interesting spectacle of the Chinese government corrupting a US company (or exposing the latent corruption that was there all along) to add to the long history of Western governments and corporations corrupting China. (Anyone remember the East India Company or Jardine and Matheson?) I'm thinking here of pure malevolence like two Opium Wars, the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, the unequal treaties and forced concession of territory, of course, but also of the presumably unintended consequences of imperial muscle. (One example would be the British anti-piracy drive in the South China Sea in the 1840s which drove pirates inland, making life hell for people living on southern Chinese rivers.)

Anyway, for the moment, I guess our job is to email Google and get them to change policy. If you live in a Western democracy your chances of going to gaol for doing so are just about zero--unlike Chinese cyber-dissidents.

The Chinese government also blocks other informative websites--including this one, perhaps, since it's hosted by blogspot. (See this column from The South China Morning Post, Jan 2003.)

And in North Korea, even computer scientists don't have access to the internet--although Kim Jong Il does, apparently, and is a big fan.

There's more reaction to the Google story, with links, at chinaweb.

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