Are Any Information Gateways Neutral?

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After picking a fight with the Chinese government last year following an organised hacking attack on its servers, Google has finally stopped censoring search results via Google.cn — which it had been doing in line with the policies of the ruling party. From Tuesday, it has directed mainland Chinese users to its less restrictive Hong Kong site.

It’s unlikely that this state of affairs will last for very long, however, with the PRC likely to block the site, preventing Chinese users from searching via Google at all. The most immediate result will be a fillip for Google’s rival and search market leader in China, Baidu [in Chinese]— which is more than happy to toe the line drawn by the Communist Party. As a result, there will likely be few immediate dividends in terms of freedom of speech or information for China’s netizens.

In terms of Google’s global business, it’s not much skin off its nose to exit China. Indeed, since Google’s announcement last year, it’s been suggested that the cyber-attacks were a good pretext for leaving a market where Google was making little headway. The search business does tend to have a stark "winner-takes-all" dynamic. I’d argue again that Google’s flight from China is mainly a business decision with the bonus of an apparent alignment with US foreign policy initiatives on censorship that are mainly aimed at China and Iran. Google still makes over half its money in the US and it makes sense to be seen to be lending a hand to the cause of freedom.

And as Elise Potaka pointed out in newmatilda.com yesterday, however, "Google meanwhile has said it will continue with its other business operations in China, including research and development and ad sales. So, as the company laps up praise for refusing to bow down to government censorship, it also continues to reap benefits from the world’s biggest internet market." So while Google is certainly making itself scarce in China, it’s not entirely abandoning the Chinese market.

Given this, it’s hard not to develop the sense that Google’s rhetoric in China has been disingenuous, especially when we look at what they’re prepared to do elsewhere. Anyone who thinks that Google acts mainly to defend free speech should probably consider the range of examples that reveal how willing Google is to cooperate with governments in restricting their residents’ access to certain kinds of information.

Some of us may be okay with the idea of Google assisting the French and German governments to block neo-Nazi or holocaust-denialist websites. Those governments are duly elected, their rationale and practice of censorship is clear and transparent, and their history may seem to mandate a hard line on those issues. Still, abhorrent as such ideas might be to some of us, it’s necessary to define this as political censorship, aimed at restricting the circulation of certain views.

Similarly, while Google prevents Indian users from finding certain pornographic results to abide by obscenity laws, it has also removed some groups considered to be political extremists by the Indian Government from its social networking service, Orkut.

And what about preventing Thais from seeing YouTube videos that insult their King, or Turkish people from seeing videos that imply Kemal Ataturk was a homosexual?

While a large number of people in each country might take deep offence at such material, it’s worth pointing out that the governments mobilising these national symbols are fighting with separatist minorities within their own borders. These groups take a radically different view of the central pillars of national identity — and Google is hindering their ability to get certain kinds of criticism heard in their own country. Like it or not, in such cases, Google is effectively taking sides in internal political conflicts and clearly accepts this as the price of doing business in these territories.

While such collaboration with outright censorship might be local and exceptional, it’s a timely reminder that Google is not necessarily a neutral gateway to information. For Australians engaged in the current debate about the proposed internet filter, Google’s apparent willingness to be a gatekeeper when circumstances require it, should prod us into extending and reframing our own conversation around censorship.

Recent academic work has pointed out that the model of censorship as the practice of a repressive, centralised state misses the extent to which its operations are embedded in the very technologies and services we use to access information. More and more, censorship happens at a distance from the state.

We might be sanguine enough about the fact that Google already blocks access to child pornography wherever it finds it. But we should also remember that for the vast majority of inexpert, relatively casual users, Google’s default safesearch settings are filtering a significant proportion of all their search results. And YouTube’s terms of service mean that a large number of videos are taken down or disabled every day.

But Google isn’t alone: the same logic of control is embedded in a range of everyday consumer technologies. From V-chips to PIN access to cable television, from "clean version" CDs and MP3s to the iPhone App Store approval process, censorship is carried out in ways that are more dispersed than old-fashioned, top-down state control, but are also, in a sense, less obvious and accountable.

Given Google’s evident pragmatism when it comes to censorship, and the way in which unacknowledged forms of control are embedded in the services it offers, we shouldn’t rely on it — or on any other corporate entity — to wage the key battles for information freedom, nor necessarily see them as lining up with us against forms of state control.

We shouldn’t take it for granted that companies like Google share a set of principles with us around information freedom. And we shouldn’t see the services and devices we use as neutral windows on the world.

Most of all, in this country, we need to extend our conversation about censorship beyond the more immediate issues of the proposed filter, to a discussion about what underlying principles could provide a model of freedom in the contemporary information landscape.

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New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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