Yesterday Google created an internet sensation by announcing that in response to sophisticated attacks from China targeting human rights activists in China as well as Google’s own intellectual property, it will cease censoring search results and would even consider closing shop. While the impact of this decision remains to be seen, it is being applauded by many, including James Fallows and Rebecca Mackinnon and doubted by a few, most notably Evgeny Morozov.
Things are already moving at internet speed. Unlike the censored Google search results of yesterday, the ‘Tank Man’ photos, which previously would not have appeared in search results in China, have started showing up for the search term “Tiananmen”. There already have been reports of some Chinese users leaving ceremonial offerings as when a loved one has died, only this time in front of Google’s China office under the assumption that Google is shutting down. A sea change from when Google.cn was launched with much fanfare and government support in 2006.
Self-censorship by business entities in response to local laws is an old and accepted phenomenon (of course, this also raises the related question of how to differentiate between good or terrible local laws). And, it is not the exclusive domain of the Chinese government either. For instance, search engines of all kind, including Google, block certain results and sites to comply with French and German laws that prohibit hate speech and holocaust denial.
Corporations working with national governments in the name of furthering their business interests are ancient stories as well. Of course, not every such cooperation is as egregious as Yahoo divulging the personal details of a Chinese journalist resulting in his 10 year imprisonment. There are several well-known instances of national governments collaborating with corporations to police internet and phone communications, whether done in the name of child protection (see internet filtering in Australia) or prevention of terrorism (see US and Warrantless Wiretapping) or simply posting “objectionable content” (see Orkut and India).
What makes this news different, and loads it with a lot more meaning (at least in my mind), is the fact that one single corporate entity seems to be throwing down the gauntlet at a powerful nation.
It is not Google plugging all the security holes in its infrastructure and keeping quiet about it, as is the typical business practice. It is not Google approaching the US government with its findings of these attacks and theft of intellectual property and asking for help. Considering the fact that President Obama became the first President to not meet with HH Dalai Lama, Google may not have received much assistance anyways.
It is Google telling the Chinese government that they are “no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn” in response to attacks and surveillance originating from China and “attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web.” Sure there is corporate self-interest behind it. China’s own search engine Baidu is giving stiff competition to Google may have factored in as well. However, Google still did it and did it in such stark terms, citing free speech rights of democracy activists in its press release.
It is the clash of two rising superpowers. And it may be a foretelling of who else human rights defenders and activists should be working with in the future.