There are few more powerful examples of Google’s awesome reach and influence than comparing search results for the word ‘Tiananmen’ on google.cn (Google China) and google.com. The former leads you to a series of images worthy of a tourism brochure: the beauty of the square’s building at night, excited visitors with their arms open wide as if to embrace the remarkable historical vista that lies before them. The latter leads you to im-ages of tanks, more tanks and surging protesters.
Google’s motto is ‘Don’t be Evil’ and their mission is vast: ‘to organise the world’s informa-tion and make it accessible.’ It was started eight years ago by a couple of computer nerds, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and is now the fastest growing company in the world.
On Australia Day, around the time that John Howard was making his own declaration about the way information should be filtered into Australian classrooms, Google had a market capitalisation of $138 billion, although its share prices have since dropped after disappointing results for its first quarter.
Thanks to Scratch.
The London Review of Books recently ran an essay (since extracted by The Age) review-ing two books about Google: The Google Story by David Vise and The Search by John Battelle. The essay’s author, John Lanchester, outlines the significant moments in this modern business fairytale the fact that the company started with a spelling error (it was meant to be called googol); the extraordinarily simple mechanics of its operation; and the breathless speed with which it has transformed itself into a multi-billion dollar company.
Lanchester summarises: ‘on the one hand, Google is cool. On the other hand, Google has the potential to destroy the publishing industry, the newspaper business, high street retail-ing and our privacy.’
Lanchester’s article came out the day after, but was presumably written before, Google’s 25 January announcement that they were prepared to allow the Chinese Government to filter the results of Google China. Apparently the decision caused much internal angst, but we got some insight into the arguments put forward by supporters of the decision when Google’s Senior Policy Analyst, Andrew McLaughlin, made a statement to the US Con-gress in which he said that, ‘the launch of google.cn did not in any way alter the availability of the uncensored Chinese-language version of google.com, which Google provides glob-ally to all internet users without restriction.’
Which begs the question: what might the Chinese Government choose to do to people who persist in using google.com rather than google.cn?
Certainly Students for a Free Tibet remain unconvinced and have redesigned the colorful and friendly Google logo so that it’s sitting on a prison wall with the Chinese flag aloft, and have offered tips on hacking into Google’s homepage and replacing their logo with the jammed (reworked) one. And a website, NoLuv4Google.org, has been set up, inviting Google users to break up with Google on Valentine’s Day and get themselves another search engine the kind of search engine you can trust.
And believe me, a lot of trust is going to be needed. To quote Lanchester again:
Google logs all searches made on it and stores this information indefinitely… Be-cause every computer has a unique IP address, every visit to every website can be traced back to the computer making it.
Google are getting a lot of flack, but they aren’t the first media group to exchange their much vaunted principles for a shot at one of the largest markets in the world. Rupert Mur-doch’s Newscorp has been in China for years. Yahoo! Microsoft and Cisco are in there too. Indeed Yahoo! has received far less media attention for far worse behavior: it has provided Chinese authorities with personally identifying data on a journalist, Li Zhi, who believed he was using an anonymous Yahoo! account. Zhi is the second cyber-dissident said to be jailed with Yahoo!’s assistance. The first, Shi Toa, was jailed last April for 10 years.
So, can we trust the Google guys? They’re young. They wear sneakers. They are inde-pendent thinkers. They let their employees work flexible hours and ride skateboards down the corridor. The company has shown an (economically beneficial) respect for the value of other people’s labour and the importance of a productive work environment.
But they also control one of the world’s largest databases. One of their projects is a part-nership with NASA. We can use Google Earth to check out images from satellite photo-graphs and have a look at the street, and possibly the house, we live in. They are working on ‘Googling your Genes’ which will allow us to search the genetic makeup of our own bodies.
No surprise then that Becky Hogge of OpenDemocracy.net asks what deal Google did with the Chinese Government to get the one concession they achieved: that google.cn tells its customers when their search results have been filtered. As Hogge goes on to ask:
What happens when a ubiquitous search engine that stores data from millions of user searches a day opens a service inside a totalitarian regime with a thirst to know what every one of its citizens is doing at all times? how much data are you logging about your new Chinese customers, Google? And what will you do when the Chinese authorities ask you to hand it over?
The answer to that question is, in part, being played out in the United States right now, in a case that has been triggered by the Government’s attempts to track people’s use of illegal pornography. A hearing on US Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales’s consequent endeavor to compel Google to turn over search records to the US Department of Justice will take place on 14 March. Microsoft, Yahoo! and America Online have also been asked to turn over logs showing search terms used by people, and a list of websites indexed by the companies’ search engines. The latter companies all complied with the subpoena to some degree, while Google has refused.
So yes, for the moment we can trust Google. But it is hard to feel confident that they will maintain their credibility in the long term, especially if their stocks continue to drop.
And whatever Google decide to do, it is becoming increasingly easy to imagine an Austra-lia, not so far in the future, where we too have a government that has won the right to trace what searches we do online, and has the right to restrict what information we can access.
Go on, imagine it’s the year 2010. Type in ‘Cronulla Riots, 2005.’ Behold the pictures of vibrant White Australian boys, tanned from a day at the beach, beaming at the camera, resplendent in their flags.
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