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Google’s Chinese decision is unjust to users

You won’t find Jeff Widener’s iconic picture of the man standing before tanks in Tiananmen Square in any Chinese schoolbook. And as of last Tuesday, you won’t find it on any link from Google’s new Chinese portal, either.

Google has, after some deliberation, made the decision to censor its web search results in China, per the request of the Chinese government. The company, which stands behind the motto “Don’t be evil,” has gotten terrible press from people who think that complying with the Chinese government to keep curious Chinese citizens in the dark is just that — evil.

What Google has done is not unprecedented, and sadly, it is not even surprising. Other search engines fell in line with censorship on their Chinese sites months ago. Reporters Without Borders claimed that Google’s rival engine Yahoo actually aided the Chinese with information leading to the conviction of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist accused of sharing government secrets. If that’s the case, Yahoo is not only censoring results, but also aiding and abetting the Chinese government in its hunt for political dissidents.

This move to censor happened just after Google’s decision to fight U.S. subpoenas for information about Google search terms. It took little time for the privacy debate to launch after Google said it wouldn’t give up its terms to the U.S. government. But don’t thank Google for protecting your rights yet. Rather than privacy, Google is actually fighting to protect “trade secrets.” In reference to the privacy issue, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union said, “We will probably not be making that argument.”

What Google seems to stand for is greed. Though privacy became the rallying call for pro-Google statements in the American case, in reality, Google just has a case of the gimmes.

When the chips were down and the stakes on market shares were high, Google looked the other way. The decision to censor in China is exactly the opposite of Google’s stated mission. It prevents information from flowing freely. Some might argue that it is unlawful for Google not to comply with the Chinese laws on censorship, but Google’s first commitment should be to users, and in this case, those users’ rights are being ignored. Google itself essentially said that last year when it bought five percent of the shares in AOL. “Providing a great search is the core of what we do,” it said. How great is the search that ignores entire sections of history?

Others would say that Google is showing more to the Chinese than other search engines in China, and should be applauded. Google.cn (the new portal’s address) is supposed to show Chinese users what they are missing by showing the blocked site but not allowing users to access it. Microsoft and Yahoo’s Chinese versions merely block the content. But just because Google gives its users a chance to see what they are missing doesn’t make it right. If a librarian lets us glance at the cover of The Communist Manifesto, is that supposed to make us feel better when she locks it away again?

Google might try to say its back was against the wall and that this move makes good business sense. They might point fingers at the other search engines that have agreed to censor their content. But as every five-year-old knows, the line “Everyone else was doing it” never cuts it.

What sparks our anger is that Google would tout its value of giving a “great search” and lift high its moralistic motto about doing good. It is plain hypocrisy. The definition of evil — which includes censorship — knows no borders.