April 17, 2006

Google in China — Tough question, wrong question

Henry Blodgett poses the question — if you don’t think Google should have cooperated with the Chinese authorities in fostering censorship, what do you think it should have done instead? I think that’s the wrong question (although I’ll answer it below anyway). Rather, I think the right question is:

What can the rest of us do to help overcome Chinese censorship?

In the 1980s, Western information flow was huge in bringing down the Iron Curtain. The main influence was free TV, undermining communist-regime propaganda by showing how people in the West lived (much more affluently than in the East, for starters). George Soros also famously donated copiers, fax machines, etc., which seem to have been a nontrivial aid to internal information flow.

China of course is more open today than communist countries were then. TV, movies, travel, the uncensored part of the internet — they all help ensure a reasonably high level of understanding of Western thought and Western information. Even so, the Chinese government tightly controls discussion of — and access to infomation about — certain sensitive political issues, such as democracy, Taiwan, Tibet, etc., just as several Arab governments do on their favorite hotbutton issues.

But we in the West, if we choose, should be able to overcome that censorship! We can’t even keep ourselves from getting unwanted information — email spam, search engine results spam, etc. Getting information to Chinese people who want it should, by comparison, be straightforward. (I’ll write up a post with a specific plan shortly; the URL should appear in the trackback section to this post.) That’s where effort and attention need to go.

Back to Blodgett’s question. As a number of insightful links and comments in Blodgett’s thread illustrate, Google’s decision about whether or not to cooperate was not an easy one. I really only have two observations to add to those there. First, this isn’t just about short-term revenue and market presence. It’s also about developing technology cost-effectively that will be useful in any future Chinese endeavors under any future Chinese regime.

Second, that technology development point cuts both ways. Google will be training a lot of smart Chinese engineers in exactly the skills they’d need to make automated censorship more effective. And for that reason, I think Google should have stayed away.

Since I also favor proactive steps to fight censorship, I guess that puts me in Blodgett’s “Option III” group.


One Response to “Google in China — Tough question, wrong question”

  1. The Monash Report»Blog Archive » How to beat Chinese censorship — Operation Peking Duck on April 17th, 2006 8:49 pm

    […] I argued in a previous post that, as individuals and webpage publishers in the West, we have the solution to Chinese censorship in our own hands. While I can’t have been the first person to think of this, a quick search isn’t turning up other references to the idea. So here is the outline of what I’ll call “Operation Peking Duck.” […]

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