Let’s get the obligatory disclaimers out of the way first:
- I’m not a fan of totalitarianism or dictatorships.
- I’m not a fan of government internet censorship.
- I’m not a fan of discriminatory government intervention.
Okay, now let’s respond to Nicole.
I’ve reprinted her article with my comments and responses below:
Rumors that Google may pull out of China has thrown the state of the Chinese Internet into sharp focus. It says much about the disconnect between the idealism of the Internet pioneers and the reality of how the Internet is utilized in undemocratic states.
Really? Glad to know that you had no interest to a “dull” focus on the Chinese Internet until it involved a big company — not pulling out of China but — challenging the Chinese government to kick it out.
Okay, maybe I’m being mean and nitpicking your words here but I’m not feeling particularly sympathetic to you when you added the “undemocratic states” bit. What, never heard of wide-scale internet censorship efforts and policies in well-known democratic states such as Australia or South Korea2?
I agree that undemocratic governments don’t tend to subscribe to the idealism of the Internet pioneers, but let’s not poison the well here so quickly3.
During the 1990s, we were told that the Internet was going to single-handedly topple totalitarianism throughout the globe. Regimes would no longer be able to control the free global flow of information to repressed citizens, and knowledge would be power enough to squeeze the dictators out. Everything the optimists said about the Internet is true: unfettered access does have the power to liberalize less than undemocratic[sic?] public spheres. But it’s getting to that free and unfettered version of the Internet that’s the problem these days. [...]
I’m glad Americans were told such inspirational and noble goals for the Internet. While I’m still pretty certain the majority was secretly rejoicing at the idea of faster access to porn, let’s just say I’m not entirely underwhelmed that the internet has failed to deliver such idealistic results in countries that saw the Internet for what it was created for: decentralized and redundant lines of network communications4.
Please let me know when the internet has become free and unfettered. I used to think only authoritarian states like China and Iran would charge me for internet access, until I remembered that I’d still be paying for access every month with “fettering” limits on my access even when I’m in democratic America.
[...] And the authoritarians — most notably China and Iran, but others too, like Vietnam — have been amazingly adept at filtering out what they don’t want people to hear. Normally we don’t think of business interests in China overlapping with human rights, but in the case of American technology companies, the two camps are, and will continue to be, more closely aligned than we might think.
Definitely agree that certain countries have been very adept at filtering out information they don’t want their populations to be exposed to. As for business interests — whether in China or not — and human rights “overlapping”, I’m not too sure I’d say the two camps are “more closely aligned than we might think”, especially “in the case of American technology companies”.
Yeah, sure, Google, one technology company, is now saying they’re no longer keen to self-censor. That’s cool, but let’s not forget that much of the hardware and technology employed by these censoring governments were created, marketed, and sold by “American technology companies”. Furthermore, a lot of “business interests” have gone increasingly bullish on government-censorship-capitulating Baidu, driving up its stock price, as Google nears having its Chinese Google.cn shut down for not complying with laws it previously compromised to.
Just want to put things in perspective here before we get all lovey-dovey with our American technology companies and business interests seemingly aligning themselves with noble human rights advocates on their own whim.
The Chinese Internet exists as a kind of parallel universe. Despite being a dominant number one in the rest of the world, Google is second in China, far behind the Chinese search giant Baidu. China’s number one video site isn’t YouTube but TuDou. Social networking happens on Renren.com, not Facebook. The censorship situation in China privileges the Chinese versions of popular sites in use throughout the rest of the world. In fact, as of October 2009, there were just 14,000 Facebook users in China. There are officially more Facebook users at Arizona State University than in the whole of China. This makes sense: Facebook has endured multiple shut downs in the past couple of years.
Wow. I didn’t know not having Google as the “dominant number one” search engine suddenly makes a foreign market a “parallel universe”. What about South Koreans and their Naver, the Russians (they’re democratic now, right?) and their Yandex, or the Japanese and Yahoo! Japan? All parallel universes5?
Next, don’t let the folks at Youku hear you pitting Tudou as the number one video site in China. That said, I’m not sure what’s so surprising about a homegrown site that necessarily must comply with the government’s media censorship insecurities being number one against one that doesn’t have to comply and has also, like Facebook, been blocked. Is this really parallel universe material or just gross ignorance of the Chinese internet, business, and political environments6?
Every time there’s a sensitive political anniversary like the anniversary of the Tibetan protests of 2008, or the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the Chinese government blocks foreign-owned sites like Gmail, YouTube, and Facebook more vigorously than their Chinese counterparts. If you’re a Chinese Internet user, of course you’re going to be pissed off when you can’t access your Facebook profile every time the government gets skittish about something. The vast majority of social networking use is exactly that — social.
Come now, were the 1992 LA Riots riots or just protests? Likewise, what happened in 2008 were riots, not just protests. When people get fist-sized chunks of flesh gouged out of their asses, I’m pretty sure its at least a “riot”.
Nevermind that YouTube and Facebook have been continuously blocked in China for over a year now or so, let’s cut to the chase and clarify that foreign-owned websites aren’t blocked “more vigorously” than their Chinese counterparts, they’re blocked because their Chinese counterparts are more compliant to the censors. Those who proactively comply don’t get extra attention. Those who don’t, do. China’s government does discriminate against foreigners and foreign-owned enterprises in many ways, but this isn’t a good example.
Yeah, sure, I’d be pissed off about not being able to access my Facebook profile…if I were one of the 14,000 Facebook users in China. But to put things in perspective again, that’s 14,000 out of an internet population of 384 million. And of this 14,000 Facebook users in China, just how many are actually “Chinese internet users” as opposed to foreigners living and accessing Facebook from abroad? Yes, there were and are indeed Chinese people who had ventured onto Facebook back when it was still accessible (and may be addicted enough to use VPNs or proxies to get their daily fix even now), but let’s not play up how pissed off “Chinese internet users” actually are about losing their Facebook activity streams. Thankfully for most Chinese internet users, they have plenty of other means for being “social” online, like QQ, MSN Messenger, RenRen, Kaixin001, and a never-ending list of popular online discussion forums.
When users can’t socialize on one platform with the regularity they expect, they’ll naturally switch to the place where they’re most likely to be able to gain consistent access, and that tendency has overwhelmingly favored the social networking sites of the parallel Chinese Internet. Effectively that means that foreign firms like Google are bending over backwards to go against their core brand values and censor themselves, and for what? They’re still getting the run around. Chinese technology companies don’t like the situation either. In addition to the so-called “Great Firewall” through which the government blocks sensitive foreign content, China’s regulations are set up such that the central government lays out the guiding principles of what it deems unacceptable, and leaves it to the individual companies to expend the effort to police potentially offensive content — or face being shut down. This set-up explains why you’ll see different search results in Baidu vs. other Chinese search products, or why you’ll see blog posts mentioning the words “Dalai Lama” on one blogging platform but not another.
Yes, people naturally gravitate to service providers that are able to consistently provide service. When foreign websites unreliably comply with Chinese regulations, they can become unreliable for Chinese internet users when Chinese regulators are forced to regulate them. Not surprising.
Wait…why am I’m getting the impression that you think any Internet market not dominated by American online properties automatically becomes a “parallel internet”. I didn’t know “The Internet” was defined by American dominance.
I’m totally sympathetic to Google compromising their “core brand values” to operate in the Chinese market only to continue facing the nuisance of the Chinese government ostensibly asking more and more of them, like increasing censorship they previously may not have thought they were agreeing to. But I’m not sure if “getting the run around” is the right imagery7.
However, you’re definitely right that domestic Chinese companies aren’t happy with the censorship either though the rest of your paragraph sounds like you skimmed Rebecca MacKinnon for random bits to describe how the censorship policy and mechanism works in China.
American technology companies like Google have been going out of their way to “comply with local laws” in China, censoring search results (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!) and omitting books from their stores (Amazon). Google’s global currency is the free and unfettered access to all kinds of information. But if you’re inside China without access to a proxy server and want to know more about what happened on June 4, 1989, for example, you can’t just “google it” like the rest of the world. You might get a few touristy pictures of Tiananmen Square and some information about the official flag-raising, but you’re unlikely to find any information about the protests and subsequent massacre that occurred there in 1989. And if you “baidu it,” you’re likely to get even less information.
I’m not sure it’s fair to describe Google as “going out of their way” to comply with local laws. Look, laws are meant to be complied with. As a business subservient to a market’s government, complying with its laws is a given, something that is done in the course of doing business. No one forced Google to go out of its way to do business in China. I’m sorry China’s laws impinged upon an American technology company’s swagger. That apology from me is more than what you’ll get from the Chinese government. Savor it.
Agreed on your description of how Google.cn and Baidu is sanitized of information on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Personally, I wish you’d give some lip-service to Google.cn still adding value to Chinese internet users even if censored, but that’s just me.
Google enjoys over 30 percent market share in China today, a distant second after Baidu but much higher than that of rivals Bing and Yahoo. During the four years it’s been in China, Google has been steadily chomping away at Bing and Yahoo’s market share, and building customer loyalty and brand awareness in the process. The problem is that Google’s brand promise to “do no harm” — a critical key to their success all over the world — does not apply in China.
Given that Bing isn’t even a year old, I somehow doubt Google has been “steadily chomping away” at its market share during the fours years its been in China but, of course, you probably meant Microsoft’s search engine offering in general…and I’m again nitpicking. Sorry, I kinda-sorta follow tech news so these types of inaccuracies annoy the geek in me.
For the record, though, Google’s brand promise was actually to “do no evil”, and while it’s a widely-lauded symbol of their corporate culture, I’m not sure I agree that it is a “critical key to their success.” Maybe I’ve got less stars in my eyes but I’m pretty sure Google’s success around the world had far more to do with offering a damn good set of search engine results as well as a vast suite of damn good online productivity tools like spam-resistant, never-delete-another-email-again GMail or free-yourself-from-Microsoft-Office Google Docs.
Google founder Sergey Brin was even quoted (via TED) “Perhaps people don’t believe this, but all throughout the discussion of originally entering China in 2006 as we did, and the announcement last month, our focus has really been what’s best for the Chinese people. It’s not been about our particular revenue or profit or whatnot.”
I won’t accuse Sergey Brin and Google for being paternalistic here. After all, the Chinese government believes they’re doing what’s best for the Chinese people, and if ensuring their hold on power through censorship is what they believe is best to do that, then I’ll have to work in the system until it changes or becomes personally intolerable. I’m sympathetic — nay, empathetic — to focusing on “what’s best for the Chinese people.”
I’m just not so sure having a showdown with the Chinese government over an issue widely-known to be not up for negotiation that risks pissing off the Chinese government and getting the entirety of Google’s many practical and valuable services (beyond just web search) all blocked is actually doing “what’s best for the Chinese people.”
Through its actions of the past few weeks, Google has drawn a line in the sand, and now other companies are going to have to declare their loyalties as well. Motorola didn’t wait for Google’s final decision before issuing a cynical statement sure to please the censors: they won’t be offering Google search on their phones in China in the name of promoting “consumer choice.” Rather, Android phones will be packaged with Bing (Microsoft has so far complied with government censorship), and allow users to switch to Baidu if they choose. All the Chinese government needs to do is block Bing once or twice in the name of “cracking down on pornography” or some such nonsense and most Droid users will probably switch permanently to Baidu.
Agreed that Motorola spinning their move as “consumer choice” is lame. But doesn’t that reinforce my disagreement with you that American technology companies “are, and will continue to be, more closely aligned” with the human rights camp “than we might think”? Sorry, yes, I guess Motorola is technically an American telecommunications company, not necessarily technology.
But it’ll probably take more than one or two temporary blocks on Bing for those Chinese internet users inclined to use Bing to switch “permanently” to Baidu. It’ll take a more permanent block to actually stop such users from going back to Bing when it becomes unblocked and accessible again. Whether this sort of inconvenience blocking (arguably used previously to help domestic web companies) will happen to a law-abiding Microsoft is up for discussion though, but at this point, it’s still speculation, entertaining our suspicions of the Chinese government’s discriminatory intervention in business.
This is possibly the moment we’ve all been waiting for: today there is a real convergence of interests between American technology companies, free speech advocates, and China’s netizens. At its core, the Chinese government’s decision to randomly block web-based email and social networking sites is deeply anti-competitive and puts American-owned firms at a substantial disadvantage to their Chinese counterparts. [...]
Oh my god, “the moment we’ve all been waiting for”.
Let me pause for a moment of silence.
Okay, no, there’s arguably not a convergence of interests between “American technology companies, free speech advocates, and China’s netizens.” Fine, yes, insofar as all three find freedom of information appealing, there is a convergence. But one, let’s not lump all American technology companies together with free speech advocates and two, let’s not pretend the very long list of very practical interests China’s netizens have, that would be seriously jeopardized by a Chinese government thoroughly pissed with Google, doesn’t exist.
Please, let’s not disingenuously commandeer the names of American technology companies and Chinese netizens for your own single-issue interest8
Next, the Chinese government does not “randomly” block web-based email and social networking sites. They block them for a reason. Yes, the blocking itself can be “deeply anti-competitive”, but only if it is for anti-competitive reasons like giving a domestic competitor an advantage. It isn’t “anti-competitive” when it’s about noncompliance with explicit laws.
Furthermore, the blocking only puts “American-owned firms at a substantial disadvantage to their Chinese counterparts” if it is indeed “anti-competitive” as just described. Otherwise, their Chinese counterparts are subject to the same rules and regulations governing content to be censored. Blocking an American-owned firm to censor content is only anti-competitive if its Chinese counterpart is not likewise blocked for the same content, and we’ve seen plenty of examples of Chinese-owned firms getting blocked for content the government objects to. This is a blatantly false, if not negligently ignorant, representation of government meddling of foreign versus domestic competition in China.
[...] But companies like Google have a real opportunity to affect positive change. Internet censorship is deeply unpopular in China. China’s “Great Firewall” is the object of constant derision, even by those who consider themselves to be politically at odds with free speech advocates abroad. American companies, eager to get a piece of the ever-expanding Chinese market (now home to over 384 million Internet users at last count), need to be able to offer products and services that aren’t subject to constant interruption and government interference. And free speech advocates want to see the Internet do what we were promised it would — connect people, serve as a check against abusive governments, and ultimately serve as a democratizing force throughout the world.
Yes, companies like Google do indeed have real opportunities to affect positive change…
However, not everyone agrees it is their mission as a for-profit company to do so. That said, I’m personally a believer that positive change can indeed come with the provision of profit-making services. I’m just not sold on your idea of affecting a positive change is actually positive change for Chinese netizens and anything more than short-lived smug self-satisfaction for everyone else in agreement with you.
Yes, internet censorship is indeed deeply unpopular and the subject of constant derision in China amongst the Chinese themselves. Agreed.
No, I don’t agree that American companies “need” to be able to offer anything that isn’t subject to constant interruption and government interference any more than Chinese companies are subjected to. What were you saying about being “deeply anti-competitive”? If Chinese companies can’t offer products and services not subject to government oversight and approval, how could it possibly ever make sense for the Chinese government to let American companies do so? Are we fighting for fairness or for preferential treatment for American companies “eager to get a piece of the ever-expanding Chinese market”? Perhaps you strung several phrases together too carelessly?
Yeah, free speech advocates would of course want to see the Internet do what they were promised it would do, but come on, let’s not kid ourselves, those were promises they promised themselves. The Chinese government certainly never promised free speech advocates anything except that they’re definitely going to do whatever they can to keep the internet more useful than dangerous to themselves. While they are — perhaps reluctantly — experimenting with allowing the internet to be a check against the government, they surely never promised the internet would be your kind of “democratizing force” in their part of the world. Sorry.
When the Chinese government accuses foreigners of politicizing an issue, this is precisely what they are talking about. Your human rights rhetoric heavy chest-beating coupled with a consistent lack of genuine consideration for the issues involved — especially from the angle of the parties you’re pointing your finger at — is not going to smoothly or effectively advance your agenda…unless your agenda is solely to preach to your choir and rally your troops.
In that case, thanks for pretending to have the interests of Chinese internet users at heart, but no thanks.
Narcissism is more me on this Google leaving China thing:
- Google In China Is Better Than No Google In China
- Google Leaving China Will Not Be a Revolution, Televised Or Not
- …where it can reach around 22 million visitors each month. [↩]
- No, the irony that I can’t open this page from within China without a VPN or proxy is not lost on me, but if that’s what your first thought is, I can accept that I’ve already lost your attention. [↩]
- I admit, I was poisoning the well by immediately expressing my opinion that this piece is “extremely obnoxious”. You got me. [↩]
- Obviously to ensure delivery of digital boobies should one digital route fail or be compromised. [↩]
- I’m definitely willing to entertain arguments for these and, in fact, have some of my own! [↩]
- Here’s Nicole Kempton’s bio. [↩]
- Sorry, nitpicking words again. [↩]
- Unless you’re me. [↩]