Google in China
by Dennis Baron

When Google announced that in order to set up shop in China, it would block politically objectionable content on its Chinese server, google.cn, it appeared that the Internet search giant had amended its sixth commandment of business ethics, “You can make money without doing evil,” adding, “but when in China, do as the Chinese do.”

There certainly is money to be made in China, and that’s a temptation that no red-blooded American company can resist. With 210 million of our own citizens on line, U.S. internet use is approaching the saturation point, but the Chinese market is exploding. There are now some 130 million wired Chinese, about 10% of the population, and 20 million new users logged on in 2005 alone. To Silicon Valley, China represents the digital Gold Mountain, and Google is only the latest of a string of American companies to explain its deal with the devil by insisting that it is only complying with local laws, regulations, and practices.

In the U.S., Internet use remains relatively unrestricted. But the Chinese government, with its tradition of eliminating dissent, has already demonstrated that the Internet is not the feisty, untamable frontier that Americans see, but a digital compound where information can be filtered and massaged, or simply disappeared at will.

China employs 30,000 web police to regulate its expanding virtual space just as the country’s traditional police manage China’s vast population. Opposition websites simply don’t exist on Chinese servers, and the vast majority of the world’s imprisoned cyberdissidents are languishing in Chinese jails. The efficiency and ruthlessness of its Net management, accomplished through a combination of filtering, internal repression and international diplomacy, led Reporters without Borders in 2005 to shortlist China as an enemy of the Internet.

Besides silencing its internal critics, China has shrouded itself in a virtual iron curtain set up with the help of American companies like Cisco Systems. This “Great Firewall of China” blocks sites on a government hit list that deal with “the three T’s and the two C’s”: Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen Square, plus cults like Falun Gong and criticism of the Communist Party.

Until now, Google has opposed such interference with the free flow of information, arguing that readers need all the text they can get. In a much-touted effort to digitize the world’s libraries, the company put so much reading material on line that copyright holders cried foul. The company also positions itself as a guardian of user privacy. Just last month Google refused to kow tow to American government demands to turn over a week’s worth of search data because “acceding to the Justice Department’s request would suggest that [Google] is willing to reveal information about who uses its services. This is not a perception that Google can accept.”

To be fair, Google also positions itself as a law-abiding company. To comply with German law, Google’s German server blocks Holocaust denial. French law forbids the dissemination of racial hatred, and so google.fr blocks hate-speech sites. And, despite its opposition to the Justice Department’s recent request, Google and its competitors regularly comply with American subpoenas seeking patron information because the law says that they must.

According to the company, Google accepts China’s Internet restrictions because providing some information to that country’s computer users is better than providing none at all. But Chinese restrictions reach farther than those of most countries, and to follow them Google must rethink yet another of its ten ethical commandments, “The need for information crosses all borders.” Blocking non-Chinese sites on Chinese computers not only violates that sound principle, it also validates China’s belief that borders exist to keep out information, as if information were just one more form of contraband.

Supporters of the free flow of ideas aren’t happy with Google’s decision to make money and do evil while crossing international state lines. But more troubling still is the fact that the company plans not simply to follow orders, but to anticipate them. Google will pre-censor information, blocking google.cn users from sites that the company feels are likely to anger Chinese authorities. It’s one thing to comply with local law, quite another to open a new state police franchise just to keep investors happy. Google should consider its obligation to the Internet community – the source of its inspiration and its bread and butter – before it starts ticketing travelers on the information superhighway. The company needs to remember, not rewrite, its commandments, particularly the fourth, which says, “Democracy on the web works,” and the first, “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois. He is currently completing a book on the Internet's effects on reading and writing practices.