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ISSUE 119 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/24/2006

China changes engine

By Isaac Hanson
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 24, 2006

Google is near and dear to any college student's heart. It supplies us with an endless stream of information and entertainment for late-night perusal.

The first step in projects, reports and mundane research assignments is no longer searching the library, but to “google” it. Our very use of that neologism is telling. In only a few years the word “google” has become as commonplace to us as “frisbee” or “kleenex.” Our use of Google amounts to nothing less than a societal and personal transformation.

Less well-known to most college students is the news that the Chinese version of the Internet behemoth, will now actively cooperate with the Chinese government in censoring search results.

In the past, Google provided search results relevant to Chinese people, and the results were promptly filtered by the Chinese government before they reached computer screens there. Now, however, Google will use its considerable technological savvy to actively censor search results according to the government’s directions.

What does this mean for Chinese Internet browsers? Try searching for “Falun Gong” in the U.S. version of Google image search. You get what anyone familiar with the plight of Falun Gong practitioners would expect: depictions of torture and killing of practitioners by government police and soldiers, in addition to information on the founding and beliefs of this benign meditation practice.

Do the same search on, however, and you get a wildly different result. Most of the results are from state-run sites propagating the government’s official characterization of Falun Gong as a “cult.” None mention torture or imprisonment of practitioners.

Other results are similarly blocked. Search for “Tiananmen Square” and instead of the famous image of a student facing down a line of tanks, you get shots of happy tourists posing for pictures right where the massacre of students took place in 1989. Search results for “Tibet” and “democracy” are more of the same.

Google is not the first U.S. Internet company to help the Chinese government censor search results. Microsoft and Yahoo! agreed to cooperate in censorship some time ago. Indeed, Yahoo! provided to the Chinese government the account details of a blogger who had criticized the state, and Microsoft willingly closed down the blog of writer Zhao Jing when he criticized the state.

Of course, Google has justified its decision. Elliot Schrage of Google has said that doing business there "will make a meaningful, though imperfect, contribution to the overall expansion of access to information in China." But it is easy to see where the company’s real motivation lies. Refusing to cooperate in censorship would mean saying no to access to an economy that is growing at 9.9 percent a year, a country with over one billion citizens.

How could a company – particularly an American company – make a move that amounts to overseas corporate fascism? Can we simply write off Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! as evil, like we did so facilely with Enron and others? Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple.

For one thing, U.S. law is extremely hostile to corporate decisions that are not in the interest of shareholders. Cashing in on the booming Chinese economy is arguably the right decision money-wise. Corporations are legally bound to make money for shareholders, and in this case the absence of any particular laws regarding this type of conduct means that whatever increases the bottom line wins.

Furthermore, the conduct of U.S. firms overseas is notoriously unregulated. The expansion of global corporations over the past half-century has been pockmarked by instances of companies doing things in other countries that are unacceptable in the United States.

The United State’s unregulated behavior is compounded by widespread ignorance of the extent of Internet technology’s impact on current and future society. But by forbidding Internet censorship in China just as we would in the United States, Congress would set an important precedent. We need to show that crimes against free speech are just as abhorrent to Americans when committed overseas.

Some politicians have started doing so. Last month, Tom Lantos of the House International Relations subcommittee told representatives from Google and other Internet companies, “Your abhorrent actions in China are a disgrace,” in a congressional hearing on the ethics of doing business in China.

This is an important first step. We need to show Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and others that corporate profits should not trump free speech. Companies cannot be allowed to profit from overseas activities that are obviously abhorrent to us. We must show that free speech transcends the bottom line.

Isaac Hanson is a sophomore from Minneapolis, Minn. He majors in philosophy.

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