~ 30 January 2006 ~

Google & China: A Different Take

During the past week, the internet has been awash with criticism of Google for its decision to offer a modified version of its search engine to a country with one of the poorest human rights records in the world. The Chinese version of Google “sanitizes” much of the search results and displays a list of results that are more favorable to the outlook of the People’s Republic of China’s communist regime.

Google isn’t alone in altering its services to suit the PRC government. Last June, I wrote disapprovingly about Microsoft censoring of its Chinese blog service, which edits out phrases containing words like “freedom” and “human rights” as if such terms didn’t even exist. Most of the criticism of Google (along with my previous criticism of Microsoft) centers on the notion that the company is bowing to the demands of a totalitarian government just to make a buck.

Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute has a different take which is quite convincing. Ballor argues that such criticisms, while heartfelt, may be overly simplistic:

Is economic and political isolation the best way to “punish” the Chinese government for its wrongs? Sadly, sanctions and isolation of governments rarely have the intended effect. Those in power are simply able to blame the West for the problems, and the people who really suffer are the poorest citizens of these nations. There are any number of examples to look at (Castro, Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein) to show that economic and political isolation do not accomplish what we wish them to, that they have horrible unintended consequences.

What about political and economic engagement? It is the latter of these that involves the Google case. Google believes that even with the government strictures, even limited and censored engagement with the people of China is better than no engagement. “We firmly believe, with our culture of innovation, Google can make meaningful and positive contributions to the already impressive pace of development in China,” said a Google spokesperson.

The issue is not cut and dried. No one wants to enlarge the purses of totalitarians, but Ballor is right in that economic sanctions have a poor track record. Despite declarations to the contrary, the boycott of Disney by some Southern Baptists had little to no effect. Disney is bigger than ever, and the boycott has ended. Does this mean that economic engagement will work in ending the PRC’s gross violations of human rights? Not necessarily, but it is a viable alternative to isolation.

At any rate it seems somewhat hypocritical (and I include myself) to criticize Google, Microsoft, and others for selling a service to China when the bulk of consumer goods purchased in America are increasingly made in China.

Ballor offers some needed perspective:

Let’s not forget who the real villains of this story are: the oppressive governments themselves. The rampant criticism of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo should really be directed at illiberal regimes like China.

The Chinese communist regime is to blame for the suppression of freedom in China. As Google itself admits, filtering isn’t the ideal option, but it may be the best one available at present.

If reports around the internet are true, Google’s “censorship” actually may not be that good. Even a professionally clamped-down internet may not be enough to block the rampant spread of ideas — just look at the often futile efforts of the American software, music, and movie industries to stop piracy here. Here’s hoping that a different kind of internet piracy arises in China — one of ideas rather than bootleg pop songs.

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