Sense and censorship

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Mar 30, 2010 06:50 AM |
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Sunil Abraham examines Google's crusade against censorship in China in wake of the attacks on its servers in this article published in the Indian Express.

Some believe that Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin’s memories as a six-year-old in the former Soviet Union has inspired Google’s crusade against censorship in China. However, as Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of upcoming book The Googlisation of Everything, notes in a recent blog post — this “isn’t a case of Google standing up for free speech....but about Google standing up against the attacks.”

He was referring to the attacks on Google’s servers that originated from China mid-December last year. Anyone running a multi-billion dollar enterprise online would be well attuned to the security threats posed by anarchists, crackers, spammers and phishers on a daily basis. So what made the recent Google attacks so special? According to Google, intellectual property was stolen and two human-right activists accounts were compromised during the attack. So which was the straw that broke the camel’s back — intellectual property or human rights? Google could have spoken out against censorship years ago — after all it still censors search results in more than 20 countries, including India. Although there is no official channel or protocol guiding censorship practices in India, Google is regularly contacted by government officials and continues to delete web content deemed sensitive according to various ethnic, political and religious groups. Human rights activists note that Google offers some token resistance and then usually complies with the state’s demands. Google’s deputy general counsel, Nicole Wong, justifies her cooperation with the authorities citing the Indian way of torching buses during riots. Therefore it is odd that the US government endorses Google’s selective idealism in China. One week after the attacks, Hillary Clinton decided to lecture the world on Internet freedom. Then, Google and the National Security Agency announced a collaboration to deal with future cyber-attacks. This was followed by Google honouring female bloggers in Iran, forcing cyber-ethnographer, Maximilian Forte to wonder on Twitter, “Is it just me, or is Google consistently joining the causes of the US State Department?” How is Google’s move, and recent White House support for a “free web”, to be understood? How is Google’s move consistent with the Obama administration’s goal of protecting US business interests across the globe? Such questions may tell us why Google is picking a fight with China rather than Saudi Arabia or Burma. The recent privacy disaster incited by the release of Google’s new social networking application Buzz became yet another occasion when many began to doubt Google’s high rhetoric about freedom of expression. When Buzz first made the social connections of Gmail users public without their consent, blogger Evgeny Morozov questioned the company’s logic in protecting the email accounts of Chinese human rights activists (ie, when they are happy to tell the rest of the world who those activists are talking to). According to Morozov, Google has only managed to capture 30 per cent of the Chinese search market, and he believes that Google was willing to sacrifice this market for some much need needed positive PR given after a storm of bad press after projects like Buzz and Wave. 

It is clear that Google will have to fight such pressures towards greater control of the internet across the globe, China being no great exception. This week, Google and Yahoo have come out strongly in opposition to Australia’s plan to implement a mandatory ISP filter. Sometimes, a particular form of censorship serves a useful and necessary purpose — for example, Google and Microsoft were forced by the Indian Supreme Court in September 2008 to stop serving advertisements for do-it-yourself foetus sex determination kits. Given our daughter deficit, I would not have it any other way. However, in Thailand, such filtering takes the form of overly expansive lèse majesté laws which force ISPs to reveal details of individuals posting content deemed insulting to the monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej — this practice leading to self-censorship and over-moderation on forums and mailing lists in Thailand.

Also, soon as traffic was redirected from to, Google advised its enterprise customers in China to use VPN (virtual private networking), SSH (secure shell) tunneling, or a proxy server to access Google Apps. These are circumvention technologies of choice for many Chinese cyber-activists, says Rebecca McKinnion, founder of Global Voices Online. In her recent congressional submission, she also points out that in China, online defiance has a very different history, perhaps best illustrated by the Mud Grass Horse Internet meme which was an obscene pun on a government media campaign aimed at national unity and harmony. In China, aesthetics rather than technology is the primary tool for subversive political speech. Also like in Burma and Saudi Arabia, offline piracy and pirated satellite television ensures that most citizens are able to access censored content. And the average Chinese netizen cannot tell the difference between Google censoring its own results and the Great Firewall censoring Google. Google’s recent actions has very little real impact on the state of censorship in China.

For original article in the Indian Express

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