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The Great Firewall of China

How Google caved in to China's authoritarian government while spouting do-gooder cliches at the same time.

12:00 AM, Sep 30, 2004 • By MICHAEL C. BOYER
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"WE BELIEVE a well functioning society should have abundant, free and unbiased access to high quality information. Google therefore has a responsibility to the world," co-founder Larry Page declared earlier this year in the company's letter to prospective shareholders. But is Google all that different from the much-maligned "old-economy" firms that put profits before people?

Consider China. Back in 2002, the Chinese government temporarily shut off its citizens' access to Google. Use of the search engine was eventually restored within the semi-authoritarian country because, according to Google's other co-founder, Sergey Brin, "There was enough popular demand in China for our services." Asked in a recent interview if Google ever negotiated with the Chinese government to have access restored or agreed to any conditions, Brin responded, emphatically, "no." "However," Brin noted, "other search engines have established local presences there and, as a price of doing so, offer severely restricted information." Then he carefully threw the Chinese a bone: "To be fair to China, it never made any explicit demands regarding censoring material. That's not to say I'm happy about the policies of other portals that have established a presence there."

Brin failed to mention that access to Google within China is subject to rigorous restrictions. A report released this month by the respected online watchdog OpenNet Initiative details the disturbing--sometimes unique--limitations that China places on Google users within its borders. Google users within China can't search for certain keywords--for instance, "falundafa" (Falun Gong). Nor do Google users in China have access to the Google cache, a historical record of the Web's pages.

As if this level of censorship weren't enough, the current issue of Britain's preeminent scientific journal New Scientist, asserts that Google may be "supporting Chinese Internet controls" by making sure that contentious news stories are omitted from search results using the just-launched Chinese version of Google News.

Given the choice between compromising search results and being absent from a market of millions of Chinese users, Google has chosen the former. Despite this overt attacks on Google's potential to do good, the company's executives, including activist co-founders Page and Brin, remain silent. This is hardly in keeping with their self-proclaimed "responsibility to the world." Surely such a responsibility requires Brin and Page to demand that China agree to unfettered access to its services--or else.

Google's decision not to rock the Chinese boat likely has as much to do with its recent public stock offering as it does with anything else. Casting out China's 87 million Internet users--over half of whom are under the age of 24--would hardly have made good business sense. In fact, Google is doing all it can to "serve" the Chinese market. This summer, Google acquired a share of Baidu, China's largest independent Internet search engine. Baidu's search technology is hardly free and unbiased. It currently prohibits its users from searching for some 40,000 keywords.

Google's willingness to be long on democratic pronouncements but short on meaningful actions--or, at the very least, words--that encourage change in the world's largest non-democratic nation smacks of corporate doublespeak. This is not unfamiliar. In the 1970s, numerous multinational corporations--automakers, banks, oil--did business with Apartheid South Africa. Their pretense was an old one: that economic engagement would encourage change from within. A quarter of a century later, in 2002, the victims of Apartheid filed multi-billion dollar class-action lawsuits against IBM, Ford, Citigroup, British Petroleum, and other multinationals. Their rational? "It's simple," one Apartheid victim said. "This is a lawsuit against institutions that collaborated with a system that had been declared a crime against humanity." At least BP defended its South African operations by arguing that they demonstrated to white South Africans that integration and profits can go hand-in-hand, and that they empowered black professionals.

That's a defense Google can't employ. Google executives say that they believe societies deserve "abundant, free, and unbiased access to high quality information." But as long as access to Google and its partners is censored in China, its services are doing little to serve that end. China, too, plays fast and loose with human rights. True, countless other U.S. corporations do business with China's semi-authoritarian government. But they are not complicit in a campaign to deceive China's citizens, nor do they tout themselves as global do-gooders.

"Sometimes the 'Don't be evil' policy leads to many discussions about what exactly is evil," Brin said recently. "One thing we know is that people can make better decisions with better information." Exactly. And Google has the power to play hardball. If popular demand for Google in China is so massive, why sit idly by as the Chinese obstruct access to information?

Michael C. Boyer is associate editor at Foreign Policy magazine.