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Mar 26, 2010

Google Draws a Line: Will Others Follow?

In January, when Google first threatened to stop abiding by Chinese laws censoring certain "sensitive" subjects on its Chinese search portal google.cn, commentators made two points: that Google should have expected that China would, true to its nature, always demand more control over the Internet, and that Google's stance in China did not match its positions in other countries.

Now Google has announced that it has discontinued its google.cn

Instead, visitors from mainland China will be directed to Google's Hong Kong-based site, google.com.hk. While Hong Kong has been part of China since the British relinquished the former colony in 1997, the Chinese government has preserved more economic and political freedom in former colonies Hong Kong and Macau via the "one country, two systems" policy. Google argued that as a Honasg Kong-based site, www.google.com.hk is not subject to the same restrictions as the mainland-China based -- and government-authorized -- google.cn

But this only means that Google itself will not be required to do the censorship.  China has already shown that it will not hesitate to censor results from the Hong Kong site, as well as restrict access to other Google services. In fact, Google has created a web page to monitor availability of its services to users in mainland China.

As we've noted previously, Google has a mixed record in supporting freedom of expression in the face of governments' censorship demands, and for other reasons. As the New York Times magazine described in this 2008 article, there has apparently been ongoing debate within Google on how to deal with taking down content for political, legal and other reasons.

But the China situation may have been a game-changer for the company.  In the wake of Google's closure of google.cn, the company's director of public policy called for international pressure on governments that restrict Internet access, characterizing such limits as restrictions on free trade.

China is simply one example of a global phenomenon that raises concerns. Google has become a regular focus of governmental efforts to limit individual expression because our technologies and services enable people with Internet connections to speak to a worldwide audience. ...

Internet censorship is a challenge that no particular industry – much less any single company – can tackle on its own. However, we believe concerted, collective action by governments, companies and individuals can help promote online free expression and reduce the impact of censorship.


This stance is similar to the position on Internet censorship taken by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a speech in January, shortly after Google first announced that it was re-evaluating its stance towards Chinese censorship.

While the positions now advocated by Google and Clinton have their limitations -- they both accept certain Internet restrictions imposed in the United States and some other countries -- it is important that the principle of Internet freedom has now become an important tenet of American foreign policy, and a signature issue for the company that is one of the most predominant providers of Internet content.

So far, other prominent Internet companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo have limited their advocacy of Internet freedom to membership in the Global Network Initiative, which states among its founding principles that

The right to freedom of expression should not be restricted by governments, except in narrowly defined circumstances based on internationally recognized laws or standards. These restrictions should be consistent with international human rights laws and standards, the rule of law and be necessary and proportionate for the relevant purpose.


(Footnotes omitted)

But these companies -- aside from GoDaddy, which announced its withdrawal from China the day after Google's announcement -- have not joined Google in taking a principled stance against Internet censorship in China and elsewhere.  Indeed, in the past they have actually enabled censorship by, for example, helping the Chinese government identify and locate a political dissident, deleting a blog that wrote about Chinese censorship, and providing the technology required to maintain the "Great Firewall of China," as the country's system of Internet restrictions and monitoring is known.

In response to the Google announcement, Microsoft said that it would promote Internet freedom while continuing to do business in China.
We appreciate that different companies may make different decisions based on their own experiences and views. At Microsoft we remain committed to advancing free expression through active engagement in over 100 countries, even as we comply with the laws in every country in which we operate.

This is, of course, the same argument that Google made when it initially agreed to censor the search results of it's Chinese search site.

While Google's record remains imperfect in dealing with governments' Internet restrictions, it is a good thing that the company has drawn a line on where such restrictions become so onerous that they cannot be abided.  The pressure is now on other Internet companies to decide whether Internet freedom is a genuine credo, or a rhetorical flourish.

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