Days after Google moved from China, Sergey Brin is pushing the US to fight censorship there. But the West has a history of forcing moral and economic standards onto foreigners. This sort of thinking isn't good—it's how wars start.
Censorship—a dirty word to netizens of the free world! But we have censorship and propaganda of our own to preserve corporate interests. I'm not sure any of us should be applauding Google's stance.
I have a different perspective than many. I was born in this country. Yet I spent all my summers in Hong Kong, a land leased to the British after the Opium Wars. In a nutshell, wars fought over the right to import opium to the Chinese. The thing is, the British knew opium was bad stuff, having banned it themselves. The British fought a war to bring harmful substances into a foreign country for the sake of profit. China lost and had to tolerate the trade.
My grandpa could be a mean racist. But besides that, Grandpa was at once both proudly resistant to the hyper-capitalist British and the communists, having lost a great deal of wealth and culture to the Chinese faction and a great deal of culture and pride to the western one. He was the first member to be invited to an all-white Hong Kong private club, which he declined. Yet it was no easier to resist the invasion of culture and ideology than it had been to resist British gunboats, and soon subversive ideas like advertisements—commercial propaganda—were common.
Grandpa forced all of us to wear western suits at dinner from a young age, drink French wine and eat European food. My grandpa, before his stroke, still talked about how embarrassed he was the first time he tried to eat with a fork and knife; his chicken flew off his plate. I got the sense that it was hard to not feel like the westerners were right about Chinese ways being barbaric.
This has happened so many times when conquering nations met locals. In Hawaii, surfing was banned for being too sensual by missionaries. We introduced the capitalist idea to Native Americans that one could own the land, the sky, the water, and that it did not belong to all people and animals and their gods. Forcing values on other countries has been a tradition for westerners.
But "profit" and "mine" and "invasion" have never been nasty words to western countries the way words like "communism" and "censorship" have been. (China isn't saintly with regard to the notion of possession by any means—hello Tibet! Hello Taiwan!)
Google entered China with trepidation in 2006: "We ultimately reached our decision by asking ourselves which course would most effectively further Google's mission to organize the world's information and make it universally useful and accessible. Or, put simply: how can we provide the greatest access to information to the greatest number of people?
"Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world's population, however, does so far more severely."
Google was there for themselves, for the sake of their greater mission to provide a lot of information in a reliable way, yet wary of tainting themselves by interfacing with a government so controlling of information. Which makes a lot of sense if you look at Google's own thirst to control—or at least profit from—the entire internet, the global ocean of data. But still attempting to Do No Evil, of course. We probably all gave them some hell for censoring themselves, but it was a noble effort to do what they could while respecting local jurisdiction.
Now, Google's not exactly the British government, even if they express dominion over the net as old empires did over the globe. They were there, doing their thing, until yesterday, when the clash of ideologies was revealed. Google didn't want to help China censor its results anymore, even if that meant no change to users who would get filtered via China's firewall. It was a statement. A moral stand coincidentally triggered by the hacking accusations Google threw at China. With that peg, and the quote below, it seems like they were against China in its entirety, but lets just stick to the words below.
As Brin told the NYtimes, growing up in a country that wasn't free with its words affected his reversal of a decision to participate in a country that regulated information.
"…in matters of censorship, political speech and Internet communications, he said, there is a totalitarian mentality that controls policy. "Our objection is to those forces of totalitarianism," he said."
Who couldn't respect that? After all, they retreated, instead of forcing their way in like so many invaders, or like the Brits and their opium, which even they didn't want. "Do your own dirty work, China, " said Google, "Filter your own net. We won't do it for you." But China is right to be wary for similar, implicit reasons. The addiction of culture and ideology is a serious one, more widespread and more dangerous than opium.
China responded to Google by press release: "In fact, no country allows unrestricted flow on the Internet of pornographic, violent, gambling or superstitious content, or content on government subversion, ethnic separatism, religious extremism, racialism, terrorism and anti-foreign feelings."
China's right about the different levels of allowable government subversion and censorship that happen all over the world. And they're right to want to decide what goes on their net—or at least no more wrong than any other government. (Even if the penalties in China are deadly serious, literally, for some transgressions. This matters. I will not discount that but it also isn't a part of what I'm trying to say.)
Australia routinely bans video games and movies with controversial content. In the US, Kiddie porn lands you in legal trouble here as does any public threat of violence against others. And did you know that in 2004, Google and Yahoo decided to not advertise online gambling sites, even though it was not illegal? And this blogger compares the UK Digital Economy Bill to China's net censorship laws, point by point. Especially those sections introduced by the local recording industry reps.
It's true on a deeper level, too, if you think about our concerns as a capitalist society instead of a communist one. In the US, we have plenty of censorship that China doesn't—that which protects commercial interests, specifically media, in terms of information flow . (China does not, tacitly encouraging a culture of piracy.)
Think about the entire Digital Millennia Copyright Act, which puts the profits of companies above the flow of bits. Think about Google's YouTube, which is complying with the law by removing copyrighted material, even though it might benefit the culture-at-large to see Avatar for free on YouTube. (It might not benefit the people who made Avatar, of course.)
That's censorship in a raw form. Larry Lessig, internet rights genius, once even suggested that copyright violates the First Amendment. That's restriction of information. Believe me, I'm an American and I believe in protecting the rights of content producers. I agree with those rules. But it's still a form of censorship. One that does not fit into the ideology of those who live in China, a country that makes most of our physical gadgets from things other than bits, which can be copied for free-ish. Someone said to me, "That's stealing! You're breaking the law!" Well that's true, but in China, where they write the rules, talking smack about the government is also illegal. The powers that be are the powers that be.
DMCA censorship tastes better because it fits in with our ideology of putting profits and individual goals ahead of that of the masses people. To China, that's not something that's more important than protecting its government from uprisings or sharing movies for free with people for the cost of the disc, not the bits. You're talking about a country that struggled for ages to unite, and Qin Shi Huang united the warring states in 221 BCE—and that wasn't the first unification. (Keep in mind I only learned that from Wikipedia, since you don't' learn much about Chinese history in white people American school.) Of course these people want to keep shit under control. You could swap the scenario and switch out "blocking Avatar on Youtube to stop theft" with "blocking searches of anti chinese government talk to stop government uprising." The similarities between capitalist censorship and communist censorship is something hard to fathom, but spend a minute considering how it looks to China. In America, the people with the money have a lot of say.
Let's not even get into lobbyists.
Then there's propaganda. What's the capitalist equivalent to China's government approved spew? Ads! The bacon which is brought home for Google! But it's ok, because we're used to it, I suppose. We take it for granted.
China is peopled by a culture who believed that their leaders were god-chosen, as part of the mandate of heaven. Unlike the US, historically checks and balances weren't needed in China, because new regime changes were as simple as the gods sending an earthquake. Look back at the China quote, fearful of losing themselves again to outsiders after losing so much culture to the communists. China should be fearful of Google, too, a company daring to take on a foreign nation's local policies. Bold Google, though, does not stand for the freedom of the internet as much as the freedom to sell ads on our data.
China should fear Google, as a government, and a people. And even as people scared of their own government, and people like my father, a capitalist living in Hong Kong, who often defends China's right to freedom from western influence. Seeing the perverse effects of westernization on Hong Kong, good and bad—a land where a few years ago it had the most Rolls Royces per capita of any country, where shopping seems to be the national past time, and with no major art museums—I don't blame China for being wary of big business: "Regrettably, Google's recent behaviors show that the company not just aims at expanding business in China, but is playing an active role in exporting culture, value and ideas."
I can't help but think back to my grandpa's conscious resistance to the British, while still being seduced by the subtle influence which made him feel like he was less of a man if he didn't wear a European suit. How much of his own sense of culture did that cost him? Xenophobia is working in all directions now. But Chinese companies aren't powerful or presumptuous enough to try to push policy on the US. (They just finance our debt.)
So is Google putting up a fuss about open information flow as a principle, while providing internet services to places like Australia and the US and other places that do varying amounts of filtering or penalizing for accessing certain kinds of data? Or are they talking about the censorship of governmental criticisms and therefore human rights? Because if it's human rights, that's an interesting moral stance. Oh look, a quote from Brin today, blasting Microsoft for respecting Chinese law:
"As I understand, they have effectively no market share – so they essentially spoke against freedom of speech and human rights simply in order to contradict Google."
Sergey, what about the rights of the Chinese as a whole?
As an American, I applaud such a statement on one level, while fully aware of our own government's many moral transgressions. As the grandson of my grandfather, a guy who hated the condescending white devils on his shore as much as he hated communism, I am weary of such moral judgments. Especially from a company that would benefit from the opening of such gates where the information (and ads) can flow anywhere there's an internet connection. Right Brin? After all, the quote above implies that one's stance can indeed change depending on what effects they'll have on profits.For the glory of the free people! That we will sell corporate-bought ads to!
Really, it's hard to argue with any of the rules we have in the US, as they directly reflect and serve our ideologies. Obviously I agree with them enough to repeat them, to work in an industry supported by capitalism and advertising. I think freedom of speech should extend to criticism of governments, because we need those checks and balances. In the end, I get why the US and Google support censorship of things like copyrighted materials and serve cease-and-desist notices for newsworthy leaks of corporate secrets.
What moral ground do we have for judging Google and the US as Good, and China as Evil? Do you understand how my grandpa might indeed view Google and the US as a smuggler of foreign ideas, a propagandist via corporate ads, and a government dog that approves media censorship to protect the profits of corporations?
From the NYT, emphasis mine:
Alan Davidson, director of United States public policy for Google, told a joint Congressional panel that the United States should consider witholding development aid for countries that restrict certain Web sites. He said censorship had become more than a human rights issue and was hurting profit for foreign companies that rely on the Internet to reach customers.
That phrasing belongs to the NYTimes, but clearly they believe that Alan Davidson is here to fight the fight for profit.
The part in me mistrustful of great bodies of power doesn't think we're better. We're just capitalists. And Google's ignorant to think that China's the only one doing evil here. Because the way Google's spreading through my personal technology, taking over one piece of the puzzle at a time, I feel they're a happy smiling symbol of imperialism and information totalitarianism while also the world's most powerful provider of ads online. (And soon, everywhere.) And if you're talking about checks and balances in terms of governments needing them, I'd like to remind you that Google has more power and influence than many small countries at this point. In coming years who knows what will happen? It's hard to imagine them not having even more marketshare and users on the internet.
I suppose I fear Google for the same reason many Americans fear China. It's not what they're doing to us today, but what power they might have over us tomorrow if left unchecked. Not to my body, as with corporal punishment in China, which the US thankfully protects me from in least in part. But to my mind, which will be filled with advertising slogans about things that I do not want to buy, and do not want to think about, and do not want to help promote and with the idea that if I do not have these things, I will be a less happy person. This is seriously dangerous. (I'd like to take this moment to thank the sponsors of this site!)
Nothing's free, and no corporation or country has ever wielded a great deal of power without committing evil. Maybe those are things both China and Google could both stand to learn.
Update: It is more than worth reading the comments on this post before commenting yourself. Glad to see how smart our readers are, and how many great points and counterpoints they have.
Updatex2: Thinking about things for a week, and the feedback gathered on this piece since then, it's clear I did not emphasize enough that I do not think that what China is doing, and what we do on behalf of capitalism, are equivalencies. Google's choice in the matter and perspective, is made clearer to me today by David Carr of the NYTimes, who talked to Brin:
Mr. Brin clearly felt strongly as he talked about how the Chinese government - or agents acting in its interests - tried to track and monitor dissidents by hacking Gmail accounts.
"It was the last straw," he said, pointing out that he and his family were visited repeatedly by the police before they left the Soviet Union when he was 6 years old.
When you put it that way, I get it. I still believe that a lot of Chinese don't appreciate Google or the US trying to influence political decisions in their country, but that's not the Big Deal here. And maybe their sense of nationalistic independence shouldn't outweight their desires for personal freedoms.
For this round, and to me, Google is living up to their motto.