Searching for Freedom

A bit of a political economic post today to balance the cultural bent of yesterday’s. I’m currently writing about the framing of the showdown that occurred two years ago between Google and China, when attacks on the digital infrastructure of Google and as many as 34 other major U.S. ICT organizations resulted, in a bizarre twist of logic, in Google’s refusal to continue censoring its search results in China, in the name of freedom. Google’s unhappy decision to abide by Chinese censorship laws, and the degree to which it did so, had long been a sticking point between the search engine and the Chinese government. However the cyberattacks were clearly an attempt at intellectual property theft, especially given the simultaneous intrusions at so many other companies. However in Google’s statement on the matter, it seemlessly combined the two issues, explaining that “These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with attempts over the past year to limit free speech on the Web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China” (para. 8). While some speculated on the effect this would have on U.S.-China relations, the U.S. government jumped at the chance to push China on its censorship and human rights issues, emphasizing the need for a free and open internet. Of course this freedom benefits the U.S. as it opens up China to U.S. ideology.

The themes of national security, economic markets, and human rights are seemlessly blended together in the news coverage of the incident. The attack was against Google, targeting its digital infrastructure, so it should clearly be a business issue between Google and China (and the other victims of the attack), and not necessarily something that influences U.S. foreign policy. But Google’s motto is ‘do no evil’, and the email accounts of human rights activists were also targeted in the attacks. In addition, censorship has been a major bone of contention between Google and China, and it’s an issue which resonates with the American people and with the U.S. ideology of openness, democracy, and freedom. At the same time, there are longstanding issues of Chinese espionage in the U.S., with China trying to access U.S. companies’ trade secrets, as well as pirating U.S. products, so the targeting of Google’s intellectual property plus that of 34 other major companies could be seen as an issue of national economic security as much as it’s a problem for those specific companies.

Google’s Empire

So the issue is far more complex than “the Chinese hacked us so we’re not censoring their search results any more”. What made Google’s announcement significant is that U.S. companies face successfuland unsuccessful cyberattacks all the time, but no one talks about them because they fear the negative publicity it will bring, and the effects this may have on public confidence in their product, and subsiquently on their share prices. Google decided to risk that negative publicity in admitting that its infrastructure is not secure, because they had something bigger to gain. The attacks were a convenient excuse to challenge issues of censorship that have an economic as well as ideological impact. Google has always framed its decisions around censorship in moral terms, but there is also a strong economic incentive; China is one of the biggest online markets globally, and Google wanted access to it. If Google decided to walk away from this potentially lucrative market, then it must be for economic as much as moral reasons. In looking at Google’s historical position on censorship, we can see how these economic incentives have played out.

Censorship Issues

One of the first tests of Google’s stance on censorship was in 2004, when complaints were received over the top search results that were returned when the query ‘Jew’ was entered. An anti-Semitic site called ‘Jew Watch’ displaced Wikipedia as the top entry, as well as various Holocaust denier sites. The issue highlighted a central concern of Internet governance: jurisdiction online. Different nations have different approaches to hate speech; in the U.S., freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution, and therefore all types of speech are protected, although there are exceptions for when such speech results in civil rights infringements, or enables terrorism. European countries on the other hand have much stronger laws around the restriction of hate speech, indicative of the stamp that the Holocaust has left on the continent (Geist, 2002). Jurisdictional issues are raised when websites hosted in the U.S. are accessible in Europe, and notably when these sites are made available to European countries through U.S.-based search engines. The common response from ISPs in such cases was usually to direct the complainant to the website owner. However this was challenged in one of the most famous early cyberlaw cases, wherein a French judge ordered Yahoo! to block access to Nazi memorabilia available in its auctions, and Yahoo! responded by suspending these auctions to appease the French court. As Michael Geist notes, “[a]lthough the decision raises issues pertaining to jurisdiction, the Internet’s technological underpinnings, and commercial free speech, at its core the case is about France seeking to apply its hate speech laws to Internet activity” (2002, p. 190).

In Google’s case, the censorship challenge in April of 2004 came from within the U.S., from the Anti-Defamation League. Google responded to complaints over its search results with the application of its mantra “don’t be evil”, which was generally determined by what founder Sergey Brin says is evil (Levy, 2011, p.273). Brin decided to stand by the purity of Google’s computer algorithms, stating that

[t]he beliefs of and preference of those who work at Google, as well as the opinions of the general public, do not determine or impact our search results… Google views the comprehensiveness of our search results as an extremely important priority. Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results simply because its content is unpopular or because we receive complaints concerning it. (in Vaidhyanathan, 2011, p. 65)

Concerned, however, that Google would be seen as endorsing these anti-Semitic views, the company provided its own ‘sponsored link’ to the search query, which explained how the algorithms could sometimes produce such disturbing results. Since then, however, this adherence to the purity of the algorithm has waned; Vidhyanathan points out that, despite this defense that the results were purely computer generated, similar results were not yielded when the German site Google.de was visited, indicating that the manipulation of search results was well within Google’s control, but it chose to intervene only in certain circumstances, to respect the laws of the nations within which it operates, and thus ensure its continued operation there. By 2007, Vidhyanathan notes that Google had changed its ‘explanation of our search results’ page so that search results were no longer “automatically” determined by computer algorithms, but rather the results “rely heavily” on these algorithms (2011, p. 66). The company’s preferred method of influencing results was to use “quality raters” to evaluate the search results, to determine whether the algorithms needed to be changed, and by 2009 registered Google users were able to add or delete sites from search results in order to improve this quality feedback loop (ibid).

Censorship in China

Google’s approach towards Chinese internet speech laws has been slightly different. Relations with the Chinese government began poorly. Google went into the national market with little political and cultural awareness, and no development of its relationship with the government, knowing only that this market was to big to ignore. It was a late arrival, with Yahoo! already having opened offices in Bejing by the time Google started offering search results in Chinese in 2000. The company’s name was also probelmatic for the Chinese market, as it sounded too much like “Gou-gou” meaning “dog-dog”, an unfortunate cultural faux-pas (Levy, 2011, p. 287). While Google did gain some popularity in China, it then became a target for the Great Firewall—the Chinese government’s censorship technology—and the search engine suddenly became inaccessible in 2002 (Levy, 2011). After the company hurriedly began diplomatic overtures towards the Chinese government, access was resumed. Two years later, the company still had not developed good relationships with the government, but was exploring the possibility of setting up an office in China, although obtaining a license to operate would mean restricting search results according to the government’s liking (ibid). When it finally launched in 2006, it used algorithms to produce the same censored results as competitors like Chinese search engine Baidu, and in a somewhat conciliatory gesture, posted a notice on the search results page indicating that it had been censored according to Chinese law (ibid).

Many Americans were unimpressed at this apparent shift away from Google’s “don’t be evil” motto, which provided critics with an easy target. At a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Operations in 2006, congressman Tom Lantos—the only Holocaust survivor in Congress—lambasted representatives from Google, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, and Yahoo! for their various concessions to China, comparing these actions to the work of certain companies in aiding the Nazis (Nocera, 2006, para. 2). The New York Times covered the incident:

“Are you ashamed?” he thundered again in his thick Hungarian accent. Was Cisco ashamed of selling networking equipment to the Chinese police? Was Microsoft ashamed of taking down a blog because the government disapproved of its content? Was Yahoo ashamed of turning over data that led to the arrest and imprisonment of Shi Tao, a journalist who had used an anonymous Yahoo e-mail account to leak a government memo to the foreign media? Was Google — yes, “don’t be evil” Google — ashamed of setting up a Chinese search engine that filtered out Web sites that the government wanted blocked, sites that used such forbidden words as “democracy?”

Every time the companies tried to mouth the party line — that the Chinese people were better off for them being there than not; that under the terms of their license, they had no choice but to comply with Chinese law; that banned information had a way of leaking through the filters — Mr. Lantos cut them off. “Yes or no. Are you proud of it or ashamed of it?” he asked. There was, of course, no good answer to the question, so the four witnesses were left stumbling and stuttering their way through the humiliation. (Nocera, 2006, para. 3-4)

However despite Google’s attempts to appease the Chinese government, they still clashed repeatedly. In 2009 Google was accused of suggesting “obscene” results for the combination of terms like “mother” and “son”, leading to the temporary blocking of the search engine (Stone and Xin, 2010, p. 402). But there is a clear difference in the type of restrictions that are being placed on China’s internet in terms of their intentions. Chinese officials often use ‘obscene content’ as an excuse to shut down access, as outlined above. But when it comes to academic research and the need for access to information the government is keen to promote the country’s best interests. As Stone and Xin note, “realizing that innovation requires freedom to explore new ideas, censors are not deaf to pleas from the academic community. When researchers recently complained about some pages of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Website being blocked, according to an official with the China Education and Research Network, a national academic network under the education ministry, access was restored” (ibid, p. 403). In simply blocking Google sites, researchers lose access to Gmail, Google Scholar, and Google Earth, but there are other sites such as PubMed that can compensate for this loss (ibid, p. 402).

The problem with Google is that “undesirable” or destabilizing content makes up the lion’s share of what it provides, and it’s also the content through which Google makes money; all that user-generated content, mostly in English, often from the U.S. or at least the West, the content that goes viral, content that depends on freedom of speech and the ability to express ideas that may run counter to government ideals. This is the content that the Chinese government doesn’t want, and that the academic/research community doesn’t necessarily need. Google therefore really doesn’t have much of a pull with the support of the Chinese government; Google doesn’t have the same kind of leverage that it does in the U.S. because the service it provides doesn’t have much obvious benefit to the Chinese government. Meanwhile the Chinese search engine Baidu is by far the most popular choice in China, and dominates the market, calling further into question the benefits of Google’s decision to stay and have its service be subject to the whims of the Chinese government.

However Google was lacking the leverage to resist Chinese government demands without U.S. backing. Comparing the Chinese case to that of South African apartheid in the 1970s, Nocera explains that a number of companies operating in South Africa began adopting voluntary antidiscrimination guidelines, but finally pulled out of the country altogether after Congress imposed economic sanctions (ibid, para. x). As Representative Smith of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Operations stated, while the voluntary measures were helpful, “what changed South Africa more than anything were the sanctions” (ibid, para. x).

To examine the reason for the unwillingness of the U.S. government to impose sanctions on China, even as it criticized companies who enabled Chinese oppression, a brief overview of the history of U.S. relations with China is necessary.

U.S.-Chinese Relations

In the 1970s and 80s, some attempts were made to open up China to foreign trade and investment, however it wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991 that a concerted effort was made. The fall of Communism in Europe demonstrated that China must provide its people with a rising standard of living in order for the socialist government to secure its survival (Bremmer, 2010). In order to create this economic growth China needed access to the consumer markets of the U.S., the E.U., and Japan; developing trade relationships with the more volatile states in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East was seen to be too great a risk. China provided low cost labour for U.S. companies, and learned from U.S. management and marketing techniques as well as new technologies, while the U.S. targeted the market of China’s growing middle class (ibid).

However in recent years there has been a pushback from China against what it sees as Washington’s interference in its affairs, resulting from a change in thinking about the benefits of its partnership with the U.S. China recovered quickly from the recent financial crisis, whereas the U.S. did not, highlighting the success of China’s economic model and the fact that it may not actually need the U.S. The impact of the financial crisis on the U.S. also resulted in the loss of jobs within China as factories producing goods for export were forced to close, indicating that the U.S. may in fact be a liability for the Chinese economy, and prompting the Chinese government to shift its focus and concentrate on catering to consumer markets at home (ibid). As a result, “the Chinese leadership no longer believes that American power is as indispensable as it once was for either China’s economic expansion or the Communist party’s political survival” (ibid, para. 4). Bremmer suggests that the developing conflict between China and the U.S. is more dangerous than the Cold War, as “[e]conomic decision-making in Moscow had little impact on western power or standards of living. But globalisation means there is no equivalent to the Berlin wall, insulating China and American from turmoil inside the other” (ibid, para. 7).

Therefore the attacks on Google’s infrastructure and the renewed tensions between China and the search engine giant must be understood in the context of larger geopolitical and economic shifts. Bremmer suggests that cyber-espionage (stealing information to enable technological advancement, as in the Google case) has long been a tactic of China towards U.S. organizations. In addition, technology companies in the U.S. and Europe “charge that China’s policy of favouring products made with domestically created intellectual property proves that Beijing is no longer even pretending to observe international intellectual property rules” (ibid, para. 18).

The conflict between Google and China over these cyber-attacks cannot be understood simply as an issue of censorship, or persecution of dissidents, although framing the conflict in this way allows Google to stand by its motto of ‘do no evil’, and the U.S. to challenge Chinese policies through its position as self-proclaimed defender of the free world. However it is clear that these efforts align with economic goals, as China’s attempts at reducing its dependance on U.S. companies and instead promoting Chinese organizations are reflected in its preference for Chinese search engine Baidu, Google’s main Chinese rival.

References:

Bremmer (2010, March 22). “China vs America: fight of the century” in Prospect Magazine, Issue 169

Levy (2011). In the Plex: How Google thinks, works, and shapes our lives. Simon and Schuster

Geist (2002) Internet Law in Canada. 3rd Edition, Ontario: Captus Press

Nocera (2006, February 18). “Enough Shame to Go Around on China” in New York Times

Stone and Xin (2010, 22 January). Science, VOL 327. Accessed on October 4, 2011 at http://www.sciencemag.org

Vaidhyanathan (2011). The Googlization of Everything. Berkely: University of California Press

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