GOOGLE TO COLLABORATE IN CENSORING INFORMATION DELIVERED TO CHINESE USERS
The premier internet search engine Google has launched a new Chinese service, under the domain Google.cn, which it will voluntarily censor in keeping with the mandates of Chinese authorities. The announcement came earlier this week, as the Davos trade talks opened and on the same day as China's government announced it was ordering the closing of a weekly newspaper known for publishing articles on topics the Chinese Communist party's propaganda office had banned or which included criticism of government policy.
The announcement sparked a firestorm of criticism in alternative and mainstream media across the world. The new service would appear to many to work against the company's famed motto "don't be evil". Many now accuse the internet company —after its legendary initial public offering of stock a highly valuable publically traded multinational corporation— of cynically seeking to profit by collaborating with a regime that controls almost every aspect of life and limits in often dangerous ways the kind of information available to its people.
In June 2005, Microsoft's online service MSN announced it would, at the request of Chinese authorities, ban the word "freedom" from its pages, along with other terms deemed 'politically sensitive' by the government. Yahoo! has also drawn criticism for agreeing to constrain its content for delivery to Chinese audiences.
The Chinese "Publicity" office (formerly the Propaganda Department) has boasted of closing 79 publications in the last year deemed illegal under Chinese media laws. And prison sentences for journalists not approved of by the central government are routine. Reporters without Borders (RSF) has reported the detention and sentencing of three reporters for covering a dispute where party officials illegally seized land held by local individuals in order to profit from its development. The incident had led to clashes and has been heavily censored in Chinese media.
In September, in a high-level Communist party meeting, China's president Hu Jintao called for a widespread crackdown on media freedoms. Though imprisonment has continued to be one prong of the strategy for information control, Hu's plan called for a "smokeless war", in which less obvious means of censorship, retaliation against and persecution of journalists would become commonplace.
Much of the controversy regarding Google actually reverts back to its company's mission to deliver all information everywhere to everyone online —obviously stunted by ceding to Chinese government pressure to launch a censored version of its services. Google's rise and much of its fame has coincided with the assertion that its universal information delivery platform was the best way to circumvent media manipulation and thought control programs implemented by propaganda ministries in totalitarian systems like China's.
Millions of Chinese citizens had been gaining increasing access to online materials, even where it was censored, by using Google to search the web and checking Google's 'cached' pages when links were not available or were redirected by authorities.
Google.cn will now voluntarily provide the level of information suppression and redirection that the Chinese censors had sought by other means. While arguing the business side of the equation, that Google wants to be part of a massive and rapidly growing internet market in China, the search engine also claims that its mere presence will help to shift the balance in Chinese media toward more open access to global information resources.
Even as critics in the west and around the world gather their resources to try to pressure Google to minimize censorship in its Chinese service, the US Department of Justice is seeking access to search records and other user files related to Google's business. The documents are not legally required to be turned over, and the company is fighting to keep from disclosing them, in order to protect the privacy rights of its users, which is part of its standard terms and conditions of use policy.
Many are calling for a movement to protect the privacy of Google users, and even urging the company to engage in civil disobedience if the government gains the right to access private records and personal user information, in the form of resisting a court order, paying fines or even fighting any possible jail sentence.
The two stories are concerning parallels and demonstrate a trend toward governments across the globe seeking to have greater access to media sources, to their records, their methods and even to the control of their content. The situation also raises questions about Google's own practices, whereby the search engine keeps cumulative and constantly evolving records of individuals' searches, e-mail content, items clicked and web caching, for the purpose of optimizing delivery of content to the end-user.
Some believe the massive amount of data being stored is both dangerous and unnecessary, and that users should have more control over what information regarding their searches, communications or other web-based activities is passed to, collected by or stored by companies such as Google.
Some 50 "cyber-dissidents" are reportedly being held in Chinese prisons for the crime of writing articles on sensitive subjects or which take a critical view of Chinese government activity or the Communist party. During the last few years, Chinese authorities have come under heavy criticism for endangering the health and welfare of their own people and of people around the world by systematically covering up and censoring news relating to outbreaks of the SARS virus and the H5N1 Avian Influenza virus, both of which are thought to have spread further and faster due to censorship and information manipulation.
In a country where even the government admits to pursuing more than 100,000 cases of political and local corruption in a year, where widespread poverty, popular ignorance about diseases like AIDS and extremely dense urban populations require expanded media openness and efficiency, "voluntary" mass-media censorship can turn out to be no less sinister than state-centered cover-ups. The result may be the same in the end.
Companies like Google, MSN, Yahoo! and other established media businesses looking to profit from the Chinese information market, will have to consider very seriously whether their voluntary actions may constitute a deliberate attempt to deceive the public, even while their actions are driven by the urge to profit from the market that public represents. [s]
In a high-level Communist party meeting, China's president Hu Jintao has reportedly called for an intensive crackdown on media liberties. While China's government has sought to project an image of a more market-oriented, open system, it continues to forbid basic press freedoms and still persecutes journalists at an alarming rate. [Full Story]