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Google Now Censoring In China

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Oh, the irony. Less than a week after we hear that Google is ready to fight the US government in part to defend its users, now comes news that Google will cave into the Chinese government's demands for its new Google China web site. However, the issues aren't directly comparable. Moreover, while I'm no fan of Chinese censorship, I like some of the way Google is reacting to the demands. Come along, and we'll explore the entire censorship situation in China, the US and some other places you rarely hear discussed, like France and Germany.

What's Google done? They've agreed to impose censorship on the Google China service that's reported to be rolling out. Actually, Google's had sites designed for those in China to use for some time. They did obtain the Chinese domain that this "new" site is using back in May, and you were able to search there uncensored by Google itself since that time. Now Google is stepping in to do the censorship directly, rather than the Chinese government doing it.

China was censoring Google without Google helping? Yes. It's been that way for years. It either began or really came to public attention back in 2002, when people in China were suddenly shocked to find that they had trouble doing certain types of searches.

That later stopped to some degree, which caused some to speculate that Google had cut some secret deal with China. But Google was always adamant this hadn't happened. Moreover, while the initial overbearing blocking stopped, other types of blocking still continued (something that wouldn't happen if some deal had been arranged).

Wired had a nice article last year that illustrated how those in China encountered such blocking as imposed by the Chinese government, rather than Google. Moreover, that blocking is one reason why Google seems to have dropped in popularity in China while Baidu rose, as the LA Times covered not too long ago.

The one exception until now has been with Google China News. In September 2004, Google decided to omit some news sources because the Chinese government itself was blocking access to them. As they blogged to explain:

For last week's launch of the Chinese-language edition of Google News, we had to decide whether sources that cannot be viewed in China should be included for Google News users inside the PRC. Naturally, we want to present as broad a range of news sources as possible. For every edition of Google News, in every language, we attempt to select news sources without regard to political viewpoint or ideology. For Internet users in China, we had to consider the fact that some sources are entirely blocked. Leaving aside the politics, that presents us with a serious user experience problem. Google News does not show news stories, but rather links to news stories. So links to stories published by blocked news sources would not work for users inside the PRC -- if they clicked on a headline from a blocked source, they would get an error page. It is possible that there would be some small user value to just seeing the headlines. However, simply showing these headlines would likely result in Google News being blocked altogether in China.

So was Google censoring or just acting to protect the user experience? Whatever you call it, the end result was the same. You simply couldn't find certain sites that might be relevant in Google.

Today's news is a fundamental shift. Google isn't running for the cover of protecting the user experience by omitting some news sites. It's flat out saying that the Chinese government wants it to do censoring in news search, web search and other areas and that Google will comply.

Google's complying for better access to the Chinese market, including being able to base servers in China and have access sped up because the Chinese government is not longer blocking them. Reuters provides more details on this plus an explanation from Google:

"In order to operate from China, we have removed some content from the search results available on Google.cn, in response to local law, regulation or policy," the company said.

Aware of the trade-offs it is making, Google executives said they believe the company can play a more positive role by participating in the Chinese market, despite restrictions, than by boycotting the country in order to avoid such compromises.

"While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission," the company stated.

Well censorship is just plain evil, right? So much for Google's "Don't Be Evil" motto! Not necessarily. Government imposed censorship is always worrying, because many people believe they should be able to decide what's good and bad, rather than their government doing this.

However, companies do have to follow the laws of the countries they operate in. For those in the US and elsewhere to say Google shouldn't follow Chinese laws is hypocritical if they are not forcefully demanding that Google not follow other laws.

To avoid this hypocrisy, I'd like everyone upset about the Google move in China to also start protesting that the governments of France and Germany should not require Google to remove Nazi or hate sites.

I've written about this and other types of country-specific censorship before. My Revisiting Google Censorship In Germany & France post provides a variety of references and tools that show this. But I'll do a quick illustration here.

Search on Google.com for nazi, and you get the American Nazi Party listed first. Ah, but those results are oriented toward America, right? Not necessarily. Over at Google UK, a search for nazi brings it up again. But Google France? A nazi search doesn't find it. Is that because I searched for just French pages? No, it was a worldwide search. Perhaps different ranking reasons? No. It's because that site has been omitted from Google France, as you can see here. Germany also censors sites. Google Blogoscoped did a big comparison last year that illustrates this, and Boing Boing today points to an example of a body modification site being banned.

If Google's not going to obey Chinese laws, then neither should it obey French and German ones. Nor perhaps should it follow US laws that require it to pull material, as I'll get to later in this piece.

Alternatively, Google could be selective and decide that some laws are simply unreasonable, repressive or so bad that it won't follow them. That means abandoning certain countries, of course.

Google could do that with China. It would be a far braver, less evil company if it said to the Chinese government that it won't do the widespread censorship that's being demanded. Keep your money, good luck with your suppression of knowledge and freedom, we'll do business in other places. See you when your policies change.

As for the actual censoring happening, if it's going to happen, at least Google's doing it in a way that I've suggested in my Got To Censor Search Listings? Why Not Disclose? piece from 2004. Do a search on something that's censored, and at least Google is telling Chinese searchers that their government has force a removal.

Here's an example. The Guardian has some examples of searches that might cause sites to be blocked, including [tiananmen square massacre]. So I tried that on Google China. Down at the bottom of the results is this:

据当地法律法规和政策,部分搜索结果未予显示。

I don't speak Chinese, but Google has a translation tool I used. It's the typical bad, broken machine translation you typically get, but the main point of what the Chinese are being told comes across:

According to the local law laws and regulations and the policy, partially searches the result does not demonstrate.

Good. At least if the results are censored, there's disclosure of this. That's far more than you'll see in any other country where censorship is happening other than the US. France and Germany? Multiple places are reporting that Google discloses removals there. It does NOT, to my knowledge.

How about the US? Disclosure is related specifically to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and started not long after Google came under fire for removing pages from an anti-Scientology web site because of a copyright infringement claim.

You can see this in action with a search for kazaa, where you get disclosure of two different pages that have been removed:

In response to a complaint we received under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we have removed 1 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read the DMCA complaint that caused the removal(s) at ChillingEffects.org.

In response to a complaint we received under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we have removed 1 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read the DMCA complaint that caused the removal(s) at ChillingEffects.org.

Click on the links, and you are taken over to the source of the complaint, documenting what was alleged.

The disclosure that Google is doing censorship in China could certainly be pumped up. Over on Michael Connolly's blog, in his explanation about MSN reacting to pull a Chinese blogger offline, I commented:

I can understand you wanting to follow the laws of another country that you operate in, despite the fact that I might not agree with those laws. But do the laws prevent you from informing others that you've done this. In other words, if you have to censor certain words, can't you insert something like "Content Censored In Accordance With National Laws." Or if you pull a blog the Chinese government deems abusive, can't you at least tell those in China still trying to go to the former address, "Blog removed because of Chinese censorship demands."

It seems that's both following the laws but at least also helping those in China understand exactly who to blame for the censorship.

So if Google's going to do a disclosure but really in its heart doesn't agree with the censorship -- as I imagine is the case -- then get some backbone in what you say. Use the charged word of "censorship." Say exactly what law is requiring the material to be pulled. Give people an area or a way to express their disagreement.

Finally, what about the entire hypocrisy of not bending to US law but doing so with China. That's not the case. In the action with the Department Of Justice, Google has not disobeyed a law. US law allows people or organizations to be subpoenaed. People also have the right to argue they shouldn't be forced to be a witness in a case. Google's following the law in arguing against being forced to provide information. It's perfectly legal to do that. Ultimately, the case will be decided. Google may be ordered to hand over material. If so, it will do so -- or it will face penalties under US law.

In China, it's unclear what exactly the "law" is that is being used to impose this censorship. It would sure be nice to hear more about that from Google itself, along with as many details as they are legally allowed to provide. BusinessWeek shed a little light on this recently:

Virtually all Net outfits on the mainland are given a confidential list of hundreds of banned terms they have to watch for. The list changes over time, based on events such as the recent police shootings in the southern town of Dongzhou.

The rules are even tougher for companies that host their sites on servers in China. This group, which has included Yahoo but not Google, are pressured to sign the government's "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry," the U.S. State Dept. says. Under the agreement, they promise not to disseminate information that "breaks laws or spreads superstition or obscenity," or that "may jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability."

Translation: "If you own something, you're responsible for what's there," says Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. That leads companies to "err on the side of caution and self-censorship."

But I assume that some way, some how, they have no ability to appeal the decision of what to censor. If they do have that ability -- and haven't tried to fight it through Chinese legal channels -- then sure, they deserve the taint of hypocrisy.

By the way, this shouldn't be a Google thing. Yahoo's sort of sidestepped the issue now by selling Yahoo China to Alibaba. As I wrote, this seems a handy way to run a service in China (Yahoo know owns 40 percent of Alibaba) but throw your hands up about censorship and say, "It's not us doing it." Maybe Alibaba now runs things, but Yahoo with a major stake should be pushing for at least disclosure of censorship to be provided. The same is true for MSN, which operates over there.

Nor should this be a China thing. If you're removing material from search results for various reasons -- spam, government censorship, whatever -- disclose that everywhere, not just in response to particular outrages.

In the end, I find myself struggling. I'm glad the disclosure is there. I wanted to see that type of disclosure, and it's welcomed. But I also want Google to say no to China, to argue that the censorship the country wants to impose is not based on reasonable, fair laws or in accordance with Google's supposed mission of organizing the world's information.

Ultimately, I want Google to pull out and fight back. I can see the argument for being engaged in a country, for trying to help promote change over time. But I feel like Google should be big enough and principled enough to be engaged by not being engaged. That might do far more good now than years down the line.

We've written before that US firms might be forced to do this type of thing. A US Congressional hearing is about to happen to consider whether US law might prevent US companies from obeying Chinese censorship demands.

Meanwhile, Rebeccca MacKinnon -- who is excellent to read on China and censorship issues -- points to a Wall Street Journal article on the Google move that some companies are looking to see if they can set up their own principles to force change:

Some U.S. tech companies are working behind the scenes to craft for the Internet in China an equivalent of the Sullivan Principles, guidelines formulated in the 1970s that helped mobilize U.S. corporate divestment to protest South African apartheid.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders has a petition going that might be applicable to the current Google move:

Search engines: Search engines would not be allowed to incorporate automatic filters that censor "protected" words. The list of "protected" keywords such as "democracy" or "human rights" should be appended to the law or code of conduct.

The problem is, this doesn't go far enough. I wrote to them earlier this month to say these cases seemed more about blocking sites that actually blocking queries. A minimum, a better solution is to require disclosure if sites are blocked in addition to protecting the ability to search itself.

A couple of last things. Google.com itself won't be subject to Google-imposed censorship, according to the International Herald Tribune:

A growing number of visitors from China to the uncensored Web address www.google.com will now be redirected to the self-censored www.google.cn, Google executives said Tuesday. Citing concerns for the safety of the fewer than 50 Google employees based in China, company executives spoke on the condition of anonymity and insisted that all quotations for this article come from a written statement.

What good is that if people are redirected? That's actually normal behavior. Google routinely redirects those outside the US to a country-specific version of Google. Those who want to reach Google.com can do so by selecting the "Google.com in English" link on the home page of these versions. The Google China site has exactly this type of link.

Also, it's not surprising if Google.com is uncensored. In my example with Google France, my understanding is that someone in France could still go to Google.com, do a search and see Nazi or hate sites come up. It kind of makes the French censorship laws a waste of time, but maybe down the line France will try to force further changes.

I'm sure the Chinese government itself will continue to block Google.com without Google's cooperation, of course. It's also possible that Google might change the ranking of what you see at Google.com if you come from China, just as they already do for other countries, as I've explained in the past. It's also a good argument for stopping that type of skewing, as I've argued for. Everyone going to Google.com should see the same thing, regardless of their country of origin.

Finally, so far user information itself isn't being raised as an issue. Some worry what Google might do about email or blogging, where demands for personal information or censorship have caused problems for Yahoo and MSN. The San Jose Mercury News touches on this and has a Google response:

Google will introduce other services in China, such as e-mail and blogging, "only when we are comfortable that we can do so in a way that strikes a proper balance among our commitments to satisfy users' interests, expand access to information, and respond to local conditions.''

Before you breathe a sigh of relief, consider this. Part of last week's worry involved Google handing over search records to the US government that many consider private. As I've explained, no personally identifiable information was asked for or would have been released. You couldn't link any private queries with any actual individuals.

That same type of information is about to be generated on computers based within China itself. It's likely we could see China made similar demands for private search data, complete with personally identifiable information. Of course, given the country's already notorious monitoring of internet activity, they'll likely to have all this information already.

Want to comment or discuss? Please visit the Google Agrees To Chinese Censorship thread at our Search Engine Watch Forums.


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