Putting Google on the spot


Universe Column for March 12th 2006

by David Alton

I recently highlighted the fate of the blind Chinese human rights activist, Cheng Guangcheng, who was arrested for protesting against the compulsory sterilisation or abortion, over a four month period,  of 7,000 women in one county of the Shandong province. I asked the Government whether, following the continued imprisonment or torture of political and religious dissenters in China, they would condemn Google’s self-serving and supine decision to allow the Chinese Government to censor its search engine, expunging all references to the one-child policy, human rights, democracy and events such as the annexation of Tibet and the brutal reaction of Chinese forces in Tiananmen Square

The Government dodged the questions passing the buck back to Google saying that “it is really for Google to answer questions about the commercial decisions that it takes to co-operate with the Chinese Government on restrictions to the Internet.”

Google’s  decision  to offer to the Chinese Government this censorship is a policy that makes a mockery of  the “freedom of information” ideology that Google  has embraced since its inception.

China is guilty of countless human rights violations, and censorship of material related to these contraventions will serve only to encourage the Chinese to believe that they can continue to behave with impunity.

Google has long been a champion of the values of free flow of ideas and information.  In its “Ten Things Google has Found to be True,” the company stresses that “ information needs to cross all borders,” “democracy on the web works,” and that there is an ability to make money “without doing evil.”  With Google’s decision to impose censorship, it has violated everything it is supposed to stand for.  There will be no information without borders. There will be no democracy of the internet. Instead, Google has decided to collaborate with a Government which has crushed freedom and to turn its back on freedom of information in favour of profits.

But if Google has behaved badly, Yahoo, that other internet giant, has behaved even worse.
Falling over to ingratiate itself with the Chinese Communist government, Yahoo have been cited by lawyers who say it has  provided the Chinese with evidence that led to the imprisonment of an  Internet writer who had posted criticisms of the government and its methods.

The writer and veteran human rights activist, Liu Xiaobo,  says Yahoo has co-operated with the Chinese police in a case that led to the arrest of Li Zhi. He was charged with subverting state power and sentenced to eight years in prison after trying to join the dissident China Democracy Party.

Liu said that Yahoo gave public security agents details of Li’s registration – citing a defence statement from Li’s lawyers.

Mary Osako, a spokeswoman for Yahoo,  said the company was looking into the matter: “As in most jurisdictions, governments are not required to inform service providers why they are seeking certain information and typically do not do so.”

In other words, any pretext could be used to secure the identity of any dissenter or dissident.
Reporters Without Borders (a media watchdog) said  that Yahoo’s explanation that they simply respond to requests from authorities was disingenuous, stating: “Yahoo certainly knew it was helping to arrest political dissidents and journalists, not just ordinary criminals.”

Along with Google and Yahoo, Microsoft have also been courting the Chinese. In December, on Chinese government instructions, they shut down a blog at MSN Spaces belonging to an outspoken blogger, Michael Anti.

The government has also been pressuring mainstream Internet news Web sites in what analysts say is a tightening of the atmosphere for intellectuals.

A notice issued by the Beijing Internet Propaganda Management Office lists media sites which it says were reprinting information that went beyond what was lawful.

The notice they posted made no bones about it: “At present, do not use what they report on political news; especially do not use them for front page news on the Internet.”

So much for defending freedom of expression, and so much for supporting those who champion human rights and democracy.  Sadly, all this was highlighted in a week when a Chinese journalist died after being kicked to death by police. He had dared to publish a critical article highlighting corruption.

I hope our internet providers will think long and hard about the price that others are paying for the concessions they have made.