Google Censors China Search: A Dangerous Game

The United States of America is engaged in a fight to spread freedom and democracy. Two notable examples of this are Iraq and Afghanistan, where over a hundred and fifty thousand American troops are deployed. However, this struggle has many more fronts. With Google as the next one, what impacts do we face?

A Dangerous Game

This is not a regional struggle, it’s a global one. Billions of dollars of taxpayer money go into this effort, but are American business—who, undoubtedly, profit from America’s political and economic structure—undermining this effort?

In January, Google followed Yahoo! and MSN into the Middle Kingdom, hoping to gain a piece of the nation’s pie, which consists of around a hundred million Internet users. Google opened Chinese versions of its services, claiming that major service problems had previously made it nearly inaccessible to China’s population.

However, the new services come with a catch: built-in censorship. Due to the tight grip of the Chinese government, Chinese users get results that are purged of content which threatens the Communist Party. This content includes material in support of freedom and democracy and material in opposition to the government, though the list is rather extensive. If one searches for information relating to Chinese human rights, one gets optimistic tales of an ever-improving respect for human rights. On the other hand, if one searches for information relating to American human rights, one gets shocking stories of abuse.

Google’s compromise is being met with some strong words by human rights advocates and American Congressmen. Such people are now more concerned about American companies working with the Chinese government in issues such as censorship. This is not the first time American companies have worked with the Chinese government, and it likely will not be the last. For example, recall MSN blocking certain words in Chinese blogs, or recall Yahoo! playing a role in the apprehension of a Chinese reporter.

Google, of course, has defended its dealings with the Chinese government. It noted that “the level of service” it previously provided China with is not something that the company is “proud of.” However, it claims that it was faced with only two solutions to the matter. The first solution was to provide poor service to users, with the search engine failing to load around ten percent of the time. The second option was to set itself up inside of China and submit to government regulations. The company has decided on the latter solution, arguing that it is more consistent with Google’s philosophy of providing “the greatest access to information to the greatest number of people”—a point of view whose underlying utilitarianism might be interpreted as contrasting with its refusal to turn over records to the United States government.

However, both sides of the debate must acknowledge there is much more to the matter than what can be read by skimming a news article, or even reading a more lengthy essay. The issue is very deep and covers more topics than the ethics of censorship. It is a matter that must be viewed on more than one front to judge its true impact on today’s society.

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A National Threat

Even before the recent actions of Google and the various reactions which followed, numerous groups and individuals believed the issue of Chinese censorship to be beyond the bare ethics of censorship. In fact, they believe it to be a matter of national security. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission was created in 2000 by an act of Congress, and its job is to analyze the effects of the relationship between the United States and China on national security. It releases annual reports to Congress on national security, and its most recent one contains some surprising claims about Chinese censorship and its effects on national security. The section about Chinese media control begins by explaining censorship’s effects on diplomatic efforts:

The Chinese government’s extensive and persistent controls over the flow of information in the media and over the Internet pose an ongoing security concern for the United States. Through these controls, China’s government plays a commanding role in the formation of public opinion about the United States and U.S. policies, which can in turn undermine U.S. diplomatic efforts. These practices also risk creating an environment prone to misunderstanding and miscalculation in the bilateral relationship, particularly during times of crisis.

If censorship has such an important effect on America’s relationship with China, then the importance of the recent search engine events suddenly increases. The report then talks about the complexity of China’s Internet censors, and in the key facts section, it says that the presence of up to thirty thousand Internet police officers has been reported, a figure which is chilling to think about.

However, the report then goes on to describe the situation in more momentous terms, describing the cultural effects of censorship:

China’s control of information media exacerbates and perpetuates a xenophobic—and at times particularly anti-American—Chinese nationalism. The Commission remains concerned about the long-term effects of these practices on a new generation of Chinese citizens who have been persistently subjected to a highly controlled and manipulated information environment.

If the report is indeed correct in its claims, then the issue of censorship gains a lot of weight. It is no longer a trivial item that occasionally pops up in the news. Negative long-term cultural effects are not something one should look forward to. The report also provides some more details on how the United States is portrayed in China:

China’s nationalism is concentrated on perceptions of Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. An aversion to U.S. policies considered hegemonic and imperialist flows naturally from early communist descriptions of Western powers as plundering empires, and from later assertions by China that the Soviet Union and the United States were unjustly attempting to control and subjugate other countries. Given China’s strong emphasis on economic growth, contemporary nationalism often paints U.S. actions as intentional impediments to China’s development—for instance, claiming that the U.S. interest in human rights and environmentalism is solely an oblique attempt to constrain or deny China’s growth.

As the above excerpt illustrates, the information that gets through China’s censorship does not paint a pretty picture of the United States. China’s people simply do not have access to the same information as citizens of the United States or the Western world do. They are limited to what their government wants to show them, and their government obviously does not want anything that threatens its power to be viewed. The anti-American attitude that censorship is facilitating poses a very real threat to America’s national security.

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The Corporate Role

Given the relation between Chinese censorship and America’s national security, it is important for American companies to act responsibly. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission includes this idea in its report:

U.S. companies continue to play an active role in China’s Internet censorship, providing hardware, software, and content filtering services. While these interactions between U.S. corporations and China’s government may be legitimate commercial decisions, in sum they had the effect of helping to build and legitimize the government’s media censorship efforts.

As mentioned earlier, search engines have attempted to justify their actions. In Google’s case, the company has said that failing to provide service to the Chinese population would be have been the greater of two evils:

Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population, however, does so far more severely. Whether our critics agree with our decision or not, due to the severe quality problems faced by users trying to access from within China, this is precisely the choice we believe we faced. By launching and making a major ongoing investment in people and infrastructure within China, we intend to change that.

However, there is still the issue of Google “helping to build and legitimize” the Chinese government’s censorship program. While Google does not directly address this issue in its official response to criticisms, it does offer something that comes close, a claim that increased access to the Internet will ultimately produce good results:

We are convinced that the Internet, and its continued development through the efforts of companies like Google, will effectively contribute to openness and prosperity in the world. Our continued engagement with China is the best (perhaps only) way for Google to help bring the tremendous benefits of universal information access to all our users there.

Bill Gates, no friend of Google, also holds a similar belief. Are these companies sincere in their beliefs, or is profit maximization more of a motivator in their dealings with the Chinese government? Unfortunately, the world may never know, but that does not make the threats involved in censorship any lighter. However, their belief is worth considering, since it has been noted that word of Chinese protests has spread across the nation through cell phones and computers. The Chinese government knows this, too, though, and it is working to confront the problem.

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Of course, one cannot expect China’s censorship system to be based entirely on search engines. Other mechanisms work in conjunction with search engine censors, but a key question remains here. How much of a role do search engine censors play, and how much of a role do these other mechanisms play, in the system as a whole? To answer that question, another source must be introduced: the OpenNet Initiative.

The group, which monitors state media censorship, has conducted a study of China’s censorship system. In it, the group addresses a charge by the French group Reports Without Borders relating to two local Chinese search engines (in which Google and Yahoo! are invested in):

In July 2004, [Reporters Without Borders] admonished Google and Yahoo! as complicit in China’s filtering practices based on the companies’ holdings in two domestic Chinese search engines, and

We confirmed partially [Reporters Without Borders’] claims that the search engines Baidu and Yisou, with which Google and Yahoo! have investment relationships, filter the Web content they return when users search for certain sensitive keywords. However, this is only part of a set of complex, overlapping filtering practices that include filtering in China’s broader Internet infrastructure. Thus, we caution that any claims about filtering must incorporate analysis of the serious technical complexities of China’s filtering regime.

According to the report, while it seems as if search engine censorship is an important piece of the system, the other mechanisms must not be forgotten. Indeed, according to many, China’s censorship system is quite advanced.

Another thing to consider here is that a small portion of American tax money currently goes toward helping Chinese Internet users get around government censors though a program maintained by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The organization also broadcasts news to Chinese citizens through Radio Free Asia, which China attempts to jam. The aforementioned  U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has also recommended that an executive office be created with the purpose of combating foreign censorship. One might view the dealings of American corporations with the Chinese government as counterproductive to all of this.

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Who Gets The Blame?

The issue of who gets what amount of blame for the censorship issue is a complex one. Perhaps Google is justified in its actions, or perhaps it is not. Perhaps Google really is trying to combat censorship by attempting to provide greater access to information, or perhaps it is trying to maximize its profits in spite of national security warnings. The same goes for both Yahoo! and MSN. This article does not intend to answer every question on the matter. Rather, the reader must draw his or her own conclusions about this complex issue.

One thing, however, is certain. Even though news articles about Chinese censorship may be read one day and then forgotten the next, Chinese censorship is no trivial matter. The effects of it may not be seen by citizens of the United States or the Western world, but they do exist. When the views of a culture are perverted by a self-centered government so that the culture turns against the United States and its allies, then a big problem exists. This is a dangerous game. Will things get better because of a potential greater access to information? One cannot be certain at this moment in time. Only time will tell.

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