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Monday, January 30, 2006

Don't Be Evil

Speaking of stifiling information, Google has just launched its Google.cn version to be used in China. While the company proudly declares that its "mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," Google has made the decision to censor the results produced on Google.cn by searches of various "sensitive terms," (and not-so-sensitive sites like bacardi.com) such as "democracy," "human rights," "falun gong," "Tibet" or "Taiwan". Until now, Google could be accessed by those in China via servers based in California, but its content was filtered by the Chinese government's internet filters, also known as "the great firewall of China". China employs 30,000 police officers to monitor the internet full-time. With regards to this very criticized decision, in an interview with co-founder Brin, Reuters quotes him as saying, "I didn't think I would come to this conclusion -- but eventually I came to the conclusion that more information is better, even if it is not as full as we would like to see." (more in expanded post)

But while Google has said that it is simply blocking sensitive information, searches of these "sensitive" terms direct users to government-run propaganda sites that disseminate incorrect or misleading information, and only the official government's stance on these issues. As many have noted, their half-truth "justification" is eerily Orwellian. Strangely enough, all this came less than one week after Google refused a US Department of Justice supoena which requested the company provide every website address produced and search term used on Google between June and July 2005. A Times article sums it up:

The government was looking to assess the prevalence on the internet of what it calls HTM — harmful to minor — not child pornography, but pornography that children can accidentally access. It turned out that AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo! had all already complied with similar requests. [...] It is an incredibly worrying sign, not least because it shows the way governments might come to use search engines as a form of privatised surveillance.

Google has an extraordinary amount of information about its users. It logs all the searches made on it and stores this information indefinitely. Because every computer has a unique IP (internet protocol) address, every visit to every website can be traced back to the computer making it [...]. (Shi Tao, the Chinese journalist, was given 10 years in jail last April for “leaking state secrets” after Yahoo! in Hong Kong handed over information linking his IP address and his e-mail to the Chinese authorities.) Users of Google’s Gmail service, who are already having their e-mails scanned to place targeted ads, have given the company their identity, a full record of all their searches and copies of all their e-mails, stored indefinitely. [...] As the lawsuit makes clear, all this information is potentially vulnerable to subpoena.

While it is in some ways comforting news that Google has refused to comply, it's sadly most likely to hide trade secrets. These two events, though they may seem contradictory, were both money-driven decisions. People freaked out when they found out their surfing might no longer be untouchable and anonymous; Google's shares dropped 8.5% when the news of the subpoena came out (that means they're worth $20 billion less now than they did a while ago). Call me naive, but I, and many Google fans, had held out hope that in this money-driven world, the "users-first"-minded Google would show that ultimately humanity could triumph. But the potential to caplitalize on China's enormous population trumped the warm fuzzies. Even for a company whose motto is "don't be evil," when it comes to cashing in on a billion people's internet use, complying with a government whose ideals are directly contradictory to its founding vision, whose secretive practices have exacerbated world problems and whose demands require the obfuscation of truth, the definition of "evil" is bendable.

4 Comments:

At 2:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's fascinating about this case is that it includes the clash of the free trade (neo-liberal) ideals and the ideals of democracy.

 
At 2:10 AM, Blogger Pyrrhus said...

"Call me naive, but I, and many Google fans, had held out hope that in this money-driven world, the "users-first"-minded Google would show that ultimately humanity could triumph. But the potential to caplitalize on China's enormous population trumped the warm fuzzies."

Ok, but how do Chinese users benefit if Google simply doesn't exist in China? I am sure you are right to suppose that profit was the driving factor in this decision. But I don't think the "human" gains of partial access to Google should be written off.

 
At 10:10 PM, Blogger deborah ho said...

The funny thing about "existence" on the internet is that it's very wishy washy. Google.com, the english version that most users in the US access, was always accessible to Chinese users, so in a way it did exist for Chinese users; the results that it returned were filtered through Chinese government filters like all other internet activity. I unfortunately don't know if that the disputed links displayed but were simply made unaccessible or if they were actually taken out (I find this unlikely, though, because that would require tampering with Google's search function). What I find so disturbing in the case of Google.cn is that Google is participating in active dissemination of propaganda and not simply witholding certain information, even though they have gone to great pains to make it seem that way. I don't see how encouraging propaganda on top of already censored information could be an improvement for Chinese users.

 
At 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is why this is the best thing that could happen in China. Prior to this deal, the Chinese government would censor it anyway, but the average users would have no idea - certain search results would just be missing. Under the new Google deal, there will be a box at the top say something along the lines of "This is a partial listing due to government regulations." The affect will be a constant remind that the Government is withholding the information that want - this can only lead to a desire for greater freedom. This is a much better proposition than merely allowing the government to continue as they did, and fulfils capitalistic aims as well.

 

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