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message to Google - Don't be Evil

Google censoring content in China
Sunday, January 29, 2006
Debra J. Saunders

G oogle gives life to the Eric Hoffer observation, "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them."

Google painted itself as heroic in refusing to help the U.S. Department of Justice's efforts to reinstate a 1998 federal Child Online Protection Act, then revealed that it was going to help the Chinese government suppress free speech. That sort of goes against the company's informal corporate motto, "Don't be evil."

I realize how eager many are to believe the evil Bush administration wants to double as Big Brother and eavesdrop on well-meaning peaceniks. So it doesn't matter that the Department of Justice isn't looking for information on individual accounts -- but instead wanted data on how the Internet is used during a given week to see how users access porn.

Personally, I'd be more supportive of the department's subpoena if the feds were trying to locate specific individuals -- child-porn-aholics, for instance -- just as I would support a government subpoena for bank accounts used to launder mob money.

My issue with the subpoena -- and I agree with Google on this -- is that it asks for a huge chunk of information to support the government in a civil suit. It's a fishing expedition, in which corporate America provides free research.

Care about rights? Be it noted that exposing children to porn on the Internet violates their parents' rights. Still, Google emerged from the controversy as a defender of privacy.

You have to marvel at Google's great marketing ploy. The company amasses founts of information on users of its service. Yet, by riding on the coattails of anti-Bush sentiment, Google claims the mantle of champion of privacy rights. "We intend to resist (the government's) motion vigorously," said a Google lawyer in a statement.

All hail Google. The Google-philes fawn as if bashing the Bushies is an act of courage, when it's the most popular -- and probably profitable -- thing a company can do.

Meanwhile, back in Beijing, Google has agreed to filter out sites the Chinese government doesn't like. The Chinese government won't have to rely on its fleet of monitoring devices that block out "subversive" content from the West, such as information on the Tiananmen Square protest, Tibet and Taiwan. Google will do the dirty work.

The Mountain View, Calif., company will withhold e-mail and blogging services, it says, to protest the Chinese filtering. A Google statement explained that "while removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information" is "more inconsistent."

It may be only a matter of time before Google starts acting like other Internet providers that also censor for China. Last year, Yahoo helped the Chinese government prosecute a dissident reporter. As The Associated Press reported, Microsoft's service in China bars such terms as "democracy" and "human rights."

Here's a thought: Google could ban the phrase, "Don't be evil."

Google can say no to the Bushies and know that it won't lose any business, its executives won't go to jail and their children will not get run over by tanks. In the country where those things could happen, Google is a collaborator.

2006, Creators Syndicate Inc.

Debra J. Saunders;  dsaunder@sfchronicle.com

Google and My Red Flag 30.Jan.2006 19:14

Sebastian Mallaby


By Sebastian Mallaby

Monday, January 30, 2006; Page A17

I work in an industry that Google may half-destroy, but last week I sympathized with the gobbler of all ad revenue. Google was beaten up in the media for bowing to censorship in China, even though plenty of news organizations sell their wares in countries where they get censored. Meanwhile, the dilemma of censorship turned personal for me. A Chinese publisher expressed interest in my recent book on the World Bank -- provided that certain passages were deleted.

My first reaction was: Forget it. The test for such dilemmas is whether you'd mind being outed in public. If a media critic lambasted me for kowtowing to communist censors, I reckoned I'd feel lousy.

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But my second reaction was different. I set the question of money aside: If I went through with the deal, I'd give the (small) advance to a human rights group. Having established that, what next? Was it better for Western books to circulate in China in censored form, or was it better not to circulate?

This seemed an imponderable question, so naturally I Googled it.

Google's answer to the China dilemma is better, and more subtle, than that of other Internet firms. It does not simply assert that engagement with China is always good. It recognizes the arms race between China's repressive state power and China's liberating economic growth, and it accepts the conclusion that follows: Some forms of engagement hasten liberal trends; others empower jailers.

This is not a distinction acknowledged by all investors in China, nor indeed in the China debate more generally. Policy types argue the merits of engagement vs. containment as though there were nothing in between; either you're for tough talk and sanctions, or you embrace the dragon unequivocally. Both Bill Clinton and George Bush have favored engagement, and both have waxed especially lyrical about the opening of cyberspace. Clinton once laughed that China's efforts to control the Internet were "like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall." "Freedom's genie will be out of the bottle," Bush said of the Internet's arrival in the Middle Kingdom.

This, plainly, is exaggerated. The fact that China had (according to a 2005 count) 4 million blogs is a good sign for Chinese expression, but not necessarily for freedom. China has the largest cyberpolice force in the world, which swoops down on bloggers who speak out against the government. When a democracy activist named Wang Youcai seized the occasion of Clinton's 1998 visit to China to launch an opposition party online, he was promptly arrested and jailed for six years. He "became Clinton's Jell-O, nailed to the wall," as Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu write in their forthcoming book on cyberspace.

But the problem with the Clinton-Bush rhetoric is not just that it's blithe. It helps American companies to pretend that all China engagement is positive. Thus the Internet router firm Cisco had no qualms about building a great cyberwall around China, which blocks Chinese surfers from "subversive" foreign Web sites. Thus Yahoo has obliged the Chinese government by tracing pro-democracy e-mails to one of its users. The e-mailer has been jailed, and Yahoo has effectively become a Chinese police auxiliary.

But Google hasn't done that. It is creating a search service in China,  http://www.google.cn/ , but it is not erecting cyberwalls or helping to arrest people. The new Google search service will give Chinese users access to better information than they had before -- a clear gain for freedom. And although the search service will be censored, it's hard to see this as a net loss. The censored material would not have reached China without Google's investment.

And that's not the best bit. Google has negotiated the right to disclose, at the bottom of its Chinese search results, whether information has been withheld -- a disclosure that may prompt users to repeat their search using google.com instead of google.cn. Of course, the second search might be frustrated by Cisco's routers. But disclosing censorship is half the battle. If people know they are being brainwashed, then they are not being brainwashed.

Which brings me back to my dilemma. The simple pro-engagement stance would be to go ahead: Better that Western books reach China in compromised form than that they be shut out altogether. But if the censors remove my references to China's "prison labor," "dictatorial system" and so on, a Chinese reader will find only my admiring comments about the country's poverty-reducing growth -- and assume that this is the sum total of what foreigners see in their country. That is where the brainwashing begins, and I want no part of it.

And so, thanks to Google, I have come up with my answer. I'll accept the Chinese offer on three conditions: The translation should include a note warning the reader that it's been censored; the note should say which chapter has been changed; I'll give the proceeds to a human rights group. It feels good to have resolved that, but I don't really expect this deal to go through. The Chinese offer may mysteriously vanish now that I've written this column.


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