Google has received lots of criticism from human rights activists since it started to do business in China in 2006. The criticism is focused on Google’s willingness to comply with Chinese official demands for censorship of information. For example, when the Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008, Google censored criticism of the Chinese government from groups such as Human Rights Watch. When presenting search results, they put a disclosure statement on the search page that said something like “in compliance with local laws or regulations, some search results are missing.” This has been a case of the lure of a huge Chinese marketplace triumphing over principles. The lure of money can do that to even the best of companies.
Today, however, Google has decided to change its policies in China. Apparently, the decision to change came when Google discovered their systems had been the target of hacker attacks attempting to break into the GMail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Although the official statement never explicitly accuses the Chinese government of being behind these attacks, the implication is there. Imagine the disillusion in the Google front office when they realized that even though they were cooperating with the Chinese government, that cooperation was not appreciated, was not enough. And so now, Google has said that they will stop censoring search results and may even end up pulling out of the Chinese market altogether. If they do pull out, it could mean the loss of billions of dollars. This is a significant decision and I hope Google benefits in other parts of the world for having made this decision. In other words, I hope we hear as much praise for Google having made this decision as we heard criticism of their censorship concessions.
US companies continue to cooperate with the Chinese government in maintaining control of information getting into China. The next company that should receive pressure to stop collaborating is Cisco Systems, which builds the hardware for the Great Firewall of China, run by the Chinese government to block information deemed offensive or dangerous from getting to the average Chinese Internet user.
So hooray for Google. Let’s hope their experience is a lesson for other telecommunications companies.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.