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Feb 22, 2006

Oh My Google!

If Google is taking a lot of flak right now for embracing internet censorship in China, it’s hard to say that it’s not the company’s own fault for letting its motto of “Don’t be evil” fall by the wayside. Although this is first and foremost a human rights issue, the fallout from Google’s decision has already branched into new and unexpected areas, inviting a whole host of new legal problems for the internet giant.

The human rights implications of Google’s being a party to Chinese censorship were explored thoroughly in a congressional hearing last week, on 15 February. At the hearing, executives from Google and its peer companies Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco Systems faced tough questions spanning a wide spectrum, from how they actually go about censoring content to how they sleep at night. The company representatives were as usual unapologetic, although at one point Elliot Schrage, Google vice president for corporate communications, tried to play the sympathy card. “I hope it was clear from my written testimony that I submitted, and from my oral testimony that I gave, that this was not something we did enthusiastically, or not something that we're proud of at all.”

I don’t think many will feel too sorry for Google, though, since the company stands to gain enormously by having this new market at its fingertips. In the meantime, political dissidents in China will continue be silenced as Google joins the government in preventing its citizens from accessing accurate and comprehensive information (or any information at all) on a variety of sensitive topics.

You can’t please everyone all of the time, and for Google it looks like it can’t please anyone right now, as the Chinese media—possibly speaking for the government there—charges that Google has not done enough to censor its search results. The Washington Post reports:
A state-run newspaper reported Tuesday that Google Inc. is under investigation for operating without a proper license in China and quoted an unnamed government official as saying the Internet giant needs to cooperate further with the authorities in blocking "harmful information" from its search results.

The report, in the Beijing News, was published the same day that another state newspaper ran a harshly worded editorial about Google. The paper accused the firm of sneaking into China like an "uninvited guest" and then making a fuss about being required to follow Chinese law and cooperate in censoring search results such as pornography….

…Google has defended its decision to launch the censored site, arguing that people in China can continue to use the Chinese version of its regular search engine, Google.com. It has also pointed out that the new search engine is the first in China to inform users when results have been removed because of the government's "laws, regulations and policies."

But it appears Chinese authorities are now pressuring Google to cut off access in China to its regular search engine, and to stop telling users of the new site every time a search is censored.

"Is it necessary for an enterprise that is operating within the borders of China to constantly tell your customers you are following domestic law?" said the editorial published Tuesday in the China Business Times, a financial daily.

Google faces a serious dilemma here. If it refuses to go along with the new orders, it risks losing access to the customers it has already lost so much face over. On the other hand, if Google steps up its censorship efforts to comply with the new standards, it will have more trouble playing the role of the hesitant profiteer, and its credibility in the area of free speech will be reduced to virtually nil.

Google may also face new legal challenges back home in the U.S., as the Bureau of Industry and Security (part of the Department of Commerce) may be preparing to challenge Google on its use of certain encryption technologies in its censorship activities. The Bureau of Industry and Security regulates “dual-use” products or technologies, meaning those items that are intended for commercial use but could have military or security implications as well. Encryption software falls under this definition, and Google’s exportation of these technologies to China, especially for use in censorship, has apparently raised some eyebrows at the bureau. The details of these regulations operate far, far away in the legal realm where The Scientific Activist fears to tread (feel free to take on the legalese yourself, if you dare), but this could develop into a pretty significant story.

If there has been a lesson to all of this it might be “Don’t be evil… unless you’re ready to pay for it.” How much this debacle will cost Google remains to be seen, and although the company will still gain financially, only it can decide whether the cost in lost credibility was really worth it.

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