TOPICS > Economy

Google Agrees to Censor Chinese Version

January 25, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


FAISAL ISLAM: Google, no longer an upstart Internet search engine, but now the world’s biggest media company by stock market value. The company’s mission, it says, is to “make the world’s information universally accessible.” Today it re-launched Google-China for the Asian giant’s 100 million users of the Internet. Yet uniquely, is its first self-censoring search engine, filtering out information not approved by China’s communist authorities.

The company said it had done so in response to local Chinese laws but huge amounts of information inconvenient for the Chinese authorities has been edited out. Anybody with an Internet connection can see for themselves. Go to — any Google site around the world in fact — and type in Tiananmen Square, for example, and you get 1.7 million results, and the top five hits are all about the brutal repression of the democracy demonstrations in 1989.

But the new Google-China site launched today — type in the same thing, only 13,000 results and no mention in the top ten whatsoever of the events of 1989. Similarly searching for “Falun Gong,” the religious organization banned in China, yields the same result.

Human rights campaigners are furious at what they say is a sellout.

ALLISON REYNOLDS, Free Tibet Campaign: Google have always prided themselves on that ethical image. That image is now in smithereens. They’re colluding with a repressive regime.

FAISAL ISLAM: It’s not just Google’s funky image at risk. Google’s success is built upon its democratic search technology, rankings determined by an objective mathematical formula, rather than advertising dollars. But Google-China changes that. And it was less than two years ago that founder, Sergey Brin told Channel 4 News that it wouldn’t let its ethos be compromised in China.

SERGEY BRIN, Co-founder and Co-president, Google: China has a variety of filtering mechanisms for the Internet and maybe some specific to Google now, but certainly there are no tradeoffs involved.

FAISAL ISLAM: China’s never hidden its extensive laws to control information, but new technologies have led to a greatly ramped up effort, some 30,000 “Internet police” prowling the information superhighway for offending articles, blogs and text messages.

The ethical difficulty for Google is that this censorship effort is now being carried out not by this so-called “Great Firewall of China” but by its own computers in California.

JIM LEHRER: And to Jeffrey Brown.

KURT BARNARD: And joining me to talk about Google and China is Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. She previously served as Beijing bureau chief and correspondent for CNN and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Welcome to you.

Rebecca, this is being called voluntary self-censorship, but how does Google decide which sites and which terms to keep away from the site?

REBECCA MacKINNON: Well, we’re assuming that they’re going to be making this decision in the same way that all other Chinese Internet companies and other companies doing this kind of business in China, like Yahoo, are making that decision, which is maintaining a very large and long list, which is kind of built throughout the industry.

The government doesn’t actually come to you and give you a list and say, “these are the banned terms.” But there’s a list that’s maintained amongst these Internet companies and kind of privately people compare.

And then if it turns out that you’ve failed to censor enough, you get phone calls from the authorities asking you to add some things to your list and so on. So, it’s kind of an organic process. It’s very untransparent.

I think one thing that many people are hoping to see or are going to be very interested to see is how transparent Google ends up being about what it’s censoring and why because all other companies operating in China in this way at this point are not telling their users why they’re censoring what they’re censoring and what the list is.

JEFFREY BROWN: In this case, in fact, Google is going to tell the viewer that the site has been taken down, quote, in response to local laws and regulations, right? Is that sort of a compromise by Google?

REBECCA MacKINNON: Well, that does seem to be a step that they are taking towards being a bit more honest with the users than any of their competition is being.

Now, they are not telling you exactly which sites they’re removing but they are putting a little notice at the very bottom of the screen. And we saw that in there. If you read Chinese, you would have noticed it there. And it says that these results have been filtered in accordance with local law, but it doesn’t say, oh, by the way, you know, they were all these various addresses and it was because of such-and-such word that they were banned. So it doesn’t explain that.

So it will be very interesting to see how Google goes forward in terms of how transparent it is about its processes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, clearly, the Chinese market is important for Google and other search companies. But why does Google say that it’s — that it agreed to this deal? What’s their argument for it?

REBECCA MacKINNON: Well, their argument is that this was necessary for them to do to make this information available to Chinese users.

Now, that’s not entirely true because, of course, Google has been accessible to Chinese users already via its service that has been hosted in the United States; and the experience was, is that a Chinese user would go and do a Google search and then a certain percentage of their results might be impossible to click through.

They try and click onto the link and then it would be blocked on the Chinese Internet service end so that they just wouldn’t get through to anything; they’d get an error message.

And now what’s happening is that Google is doing that censoring for the user and for the government to a certain extent so that the users aren’t clicking on these dead links all the time that end up being censored by the Chinese government.

They claim that they’re doing this for the users to improve their experience. However, they are certainly and what is a great concern is every time another company goes and complies with censorship internally and agrees to have their own employees doing this kind of censorship, it institutionalizes censorship; it legitimizes it; it creates a business and management model for censorship within these types of Internet service companies that, you know, there is some concern that if they’re doing it for the Chinese market, might that also — might that model also increasingly be applied elsewhere?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, when you look at the criticism that came because of this– and we just heard a little bit of it in that setup– there was a lot of it. It was immediate.

There were some suggestions that Google and these other companies do have some power if they band together to confront the Chinese government with a policy on searches and technology. Is there some room, do you think, for them to push back against the government?

REBECCA MacKINNON: I think there is more room than the companies have been seeking at this point. I think many companies are a little too quick to roll over and play dead as soon as the Chinese government says boo.

And I think that it is possible if the industry were to get together and agree upon standards that they could go a lot further towards protecting the interests of the user and the rights of the user.

They could do things like pledge to be more transparent. They could do things like adopt policies of how their local employees in China handled the data of users, and when somebody from the police department, for instance, calls to a local Chinese employee of Google or Microsoft and says, you know, will you take down the information of such-and-such a blogger, or will you hand over the information of so-and-so, that there have to be very, very clear procedures that employee can’t just act on their own.

They have to take it up the management chain. It needs to be challenged with the authorities and that these companies need to insist on much clearer and more transparent procedures in terms of what they’re doing and why and make it open to the Chinese users.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Rebecca, we just have a minute. But just tell us how important is this in China? What role does the Internet and search engines in particular, do they play in China today?

REBECCA MacKINNON: Well, Internet use is growing very fast. It’s only 8 percent of the Chinese population but that’s already the world’s second largest user base.

In the cities amongst the educated urban elite increasingly the Internet is how people do get their information. And so if you have a information environment where people don’t even know what they’re missing because they don’t know what’s been censored because, number one, it’s censored and number two, nobody is being honest with them about the fact that they’re censoring, this really skews people’s outlook on the world and about their country’s relationship with the rest of the world and about what their own government may or may not be doing, and what — just what’s going on in their own surroundings.

And so, increasingly as people do become dependent on the Internet for information, we do need to be concerned about who is controlling what information gets through to whom, and the extent to which those controls enable power holders to stay in power and not to be challenged in ways that perhaps in the pre-Internet age might have been more possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Rebecca MacKinnon, thank you very much.

REBECCA MacKINNON: You’re welcome.