Recently Google decided to set up servers in China, under the condition that it will censor its search results as per the dictates of the Chinese government. It is clear that Google has disregarded civil liberty in the interest of the potential revenue it can generate by taking advantage of a market of more than a billion people.
An alliance between a repressive regime and a giant corporation is nothing new. One of the first and most distasteful alliances was between T. J. Watson of the IBM Corporation and Hitler’s Nazi regime. In pursuit of a market monopoly, IBM aided the Nazis with the then-state-of-the-art punch-card technology. The Nazis used it to record the number of Jews rounded up, sent to various concentration camps, and those finally executed.
A considerable number of such economic alliances with subversive regimes continue today and go largely unnoticed.
The revolution of the Internet gave hope to the masses around the world because our cyber-world was perceived to be distributed without any centralized control. This, however, did not stop the Chinese government from trying to block access in China to pro-democracy websites. It took advantage of the global economy and invited major corporations like MSN Search and Yahoo to set up servers in China. But the government demanded that those corporations help it by providing more stringent web control, including the tracing of users. Such alliances invariably resulted in Chinese citizens being jailed because they posted something on the Internet or wrote something in an e-mail.
Google has had a great PR image with its users and the public. Its technology has been innovative, and it is perceived to be an enabler of greater access to information, and therefore freedom of speech and expression. It has stunned many of Google’s faithful followers to see it acquiesce to the Chinese demands for censorship.
Several prominent columnists (Bill Thompson of BBC News and Sebastian Mallaby of The Washington Post in particular) have defended Google’s decision in recent articles, pointing out that Google is different because its agreement with the Chinese categorically states that with every censored search, the results will explicitly mention the fact that the search has indeed been censored — i.e., if someone is told that he is being brainwashed, then he is not brainwashed at all.
Yahoo recently aided the Chinese government in tracking down a user because he discussed pro-democracy topics. Mallaby claims that Google has not done something as repulsive. But if the Chinese government wants to trace a Gmail user, has Google categorically expressed that it will not disclose private information? Is this part of the Google-China deal? Sadly, we don’t know the details of the deal, but if this was a factor, then I am sure Google would have trumpeted this aspect in its defense of censorship. So there is no guarantee that Google will not pull a Yahoo in aiding the Chinese government in tracing users.
The argument that “letting Chinese users know when they are being censored is progressive” is pure rhetoric. There are millions of Chinese who live in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world. They are well aware of Chinese censorship and a majority of these immigrants still maintain contact with relatives and friends in China. It’s ignorant to assume that Chinese web users do not know that they are being censored (or brainwashed). Whether or not Google discloses such information, the Chinese already know that information is being withheld, and no matter what, they still can’t get to it. It’s naive to think that Google has put one over on the Chinese government.
I am depressed by Google’s collusion with the Chinese government. It re-affirms my cynicism that “ethical commerce” is just an oxymoron. Here was an opportunity for these corporations to force a change in China. If they had all collectively taken a firmer, more principled position, the Chinese government may have had to re-think some of its censorship laws, lest it be left lagging in a fast-paced cyber-world. But money has once again triumphed in this dilemma, and the corporations are towing the autocratic line.