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Google Not So Evil...Yet
[Analysis] In this Year of the Dog, tech companies scramble for a place at China's trough
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2006-01-31 00:27 (KST)   
While Chinese all over the world are ringing in the New Year with a boom and bang this week, Hong Kong based journalist Ching Cheong is spending it in prison. Cheong, detained since last April, could remain in custody for up to ten years on false espionage charges, according to his wife, journalist Mary Lau.

Meanwhile, many in Hong Kong celebrated by gathering at Victoria Park's colorful flower market amid orchids and plum trees or by visiting Kowloon's Wong Tai Sin Temple to make offerings of incense. Ever since China announced its booming 9.9 percent growth figures last week, surpassing the UK, France and Italy to make it the fourth largest economy in the world, there has been a tangible feeling that happy days are here at last, despite ongoing political tensions.

Year of the Loyal Dog

In this Year of the Dog, fortune promises to be unkind to any wild, wayward breeds. Dogs that are loyal and duty-bound -- traits the cadres in Beijing reward -- will earn a place beside the table. All others will either be locked up or banished to the outskirts of the Middle Kingdom, left to scrounge for crumbs amid all the leftovers.

It's a message that foreign companies are learning to accept. As was widely reported last week, Google has now joined Yahoo! and Microsoft by censoring its Internet search results in order to do business in China. It was a decision that supposedly tested the company's "don't be evil" pledge, according to Google co-founder Sergey Brin. As Orville Schell, a China scholar and Dean of Berkley셲 Graduate School of Journalism, told John Battelle, author of "The Search," "China represents a great paradox for a democratic business culture -- its political culture is repugnant, but its market is far too rich to ignore.

Climbing the "Slippery Slope"

Human rights groups and civil society activists were quick to condemn Google's decision. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch remarked, "it's very difficult for Google to do what they just did and avoid the slippery slope. The next thing...it's going to find itself in the position of turning over the names of dissidents or simply of inquisitive individuals, for imprisonment.

Roth went on to suggest that only way to overcome Chinese restrictions is for companies to band together and refuse to comply with demands:

"...the answer is only going to come through safety in numbers...China needs search engines. If it faces all of the search engines at once banding together, the search engines win," said Roth.

Nevertheless, this new incarnation of a "not too evil" Google found support from an unlikely source -- Microsoft's Bill Gates. Speaking at the Davos Economic Forum just days after Google.cn launched, he noted that the internet "is contributing to Chinese political engagement" as "access to the outside world is preventing more censorship."

Not So Evil...Yet

However alarming it may sound, Gates may have a point. His explanation fits in with what Google says in its own defense; "Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission...By launching Google.cn...we intend to change that."

Google is also claiming that it is being more transparent than its competitors in its censoring by displaying a notice at the bottom of its results informing users that other links exist.

But even if the Chinese authorities allow this small -- but significant -- addition to remain on Google's new "eunuch version," Beijing has clearly scored a victory...big time. They have succeeded in getting world's biggest media company to compromise on one of its core values -- organizing the world's information to make it accessible to users.

Rebecca Mackinnon, former CNN Beijing correspondent and research fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center, recently said:

"...every time another company goes and complies with censorship...it institutionalizes censorship; it legitimizes it...if they're doing it for the Chinese market -- might that model also increasingly be applied elsewhere?"

The Perfect Technology of Justice

As noted Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig has written, code is law, meaning that the capabilities or options programmed into any technology determines what can or cannot be done. The easier it is for governments to force companies to create products that automatically comply with a country's laws, as in Google censoring itself, the easier it is to eliminate all transgressions. Options are simply not an option.

When a service itself prevents any choice but compliance, a "perfect technology of justice," in Lessig's words, has emerged. If a password -- or a telephone or social insurance number -- is needed to enter a system, then the question of choice, let alone any resistance, becomes irrelevant.

Critics warn when tech companies and governments cooperate in this way, it is possible for entire systems -- regions and even countries -- to be eventually controlled, regardless of anything a determined hacker may accomplish.

Privacy No Defense

In a related story, Hong Kong's courts last week ruled that individual privacy "cannot be used as a shield to do illegal activities," calling the pirating and illegal downloading of music "very serious." As a result, Hong Kong's Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must now hand over an individual's personal data if the authorities request it.

But this is China and critics fear the ruling may be abused, as occurred when Yahoo! handed over personal information that led to journalist Shi Tao's 10 year jail sentence last April. Although Hong Kong may not be part of Beijing's complete system of tyranny, when it comes to issues of "national unity and security" the territory is an inalienable part of China.

What constitutes "national security," however, has never been defined and it is frequently used as cover for the authorities to detain, arrest and abuse individuals, such as journalists Shi and Cheong, for doing nothing more than sending an email or posting a comment on a message board.

Nailing Jello To The Wall

Bill Clinton once remarked that trying to control the Internet was as futile as "trying to nail Jello to the wall." But given the right technology, even that seems possible.

What these two cases involving Google and Hong Kong represent is the latest struggle in a war, not against piracy or access to information, but over control of the Internet. They both involve companies and governments cooperating with each other to limit the freedoms that technology affords its users, while storing and threatening to release their clickstreams. When considered together, images of a Patriot Act for the Internet or a revived version of the supposedly defunct Total/Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) program no longer seem so far fetched.

As Irene Khan from Amnesty International said last week, "China cares about its image internationally: face is important. Let's engage with China, not on its restrictive terms, but on the basis of international principles of the rule of law and human rights. That's what we would expect of any other country. What's so special about China?

The answer to that question depends on whether your dog is in this fight or not.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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