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Serving China? Google really should search its conscience

Every morning it is the same. A cheery, two-note tune that says: "Welcome to the world and all its weird and wonderful ways." Never mind Fritz Spiegl and his soon-to-be-deleted Radio 4 theme. The finest wake-up call on the planet is the one that comes from switching on the computer and logging on to the net.

Yesterday morning, however, those happy notes might as well have been replaced with a hearty sob for all the mourning that was going on. Google, the last of the cyberspace good guys, the company whose motto is "don't be evil", the firm so cool it lets its staff ride bikes in the corridors and stuff themselves with free Gummy Bears, had gone over to the dark side.

After a prolonged wrestle with its Californian conscience, the firm has opted to take the final great leap into China. In return for being allowed to base its servers in the country and provide a faster, more competitive service to users, the company has agreed to censor its output. Like every other search engine operating within the communist regime, Google will have to take a digital airbrush to unbiased information on the Tiananmen Square killings, Falun Gong, Taiwanese independence, Tibet, BBC News and anything else the Chinese government does not want its citizens to access.

In Google's defence, it has promised to tell users when information has been withheld (what an Alice in Wonderland solution that is), and says people will still be able to route their search query via google.com, the US engine, rather than google.cn, if they wish. Nor, for fear of putting its users at risk, will it run e-mail and blogging services.

Critics are having none of it, and one can hardly blame them. Only last week Google was being praised for refusing to surrender data to a US government investigation. Now it has gone from being a protector of privacy and defender of liberty to being an enforcer for one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Way to go, dudes.

Not that it was an easy decision, mind you. Statements explaining the company's actions were painfully self-conscious. Very roughly paraphrased and stripped of waffle, Google seemed to be saying that it was better to be inside encouraging change than outside shouting from the sidelines; it was not something the firm wanted to do but it was the lesser of two evils, etc. It was old sanctions argument applied to modern-day China.

The Google engines must have been red hot yesterday with disillusioned users typing "Google, China, how could you?" into the search box. No-one who cares about freedom of expression, especially not Google which has made billions out of the desire for it, could be in any doubt about how the Chinese government abuses the internet and punishes those who dare to flout restrictions. Reporters Without Borders, campaigners for press freedom, calls China "the world's biggest prison for cyber-dissidents". Estimates of the number currently jailed for posting "subversive" content vary from 54 to 61. In Britain or America, being impolite about authority can get you respect from fellow bloggers. In China it can get you 14 years.

Bucking the system in China requires Mission: Impossible style feats. Standing between the right of the Chinese citizen and his or her right to know are tens of thousands of net police, employed by the government to filter out information "harmful" to the regime and pump out propaganda. China is not the only spider lurking in the net; far from it. Cuba, North Korea, Iran and several other countries practise ruthless censorship as well. But China is the most obvious culprit, and one of the most vicious.

Google deserves the flak it is taking for helping the Chinese censors do their dirty work. Who knows what might have happened if it had stuck to its principles a bit longer. People-power could have led eventually to an uncensored google.cn. Then again, where China is concerned it is often unwise to be optimistic.

To be fair to Google, it is only reluctantly doing now what thousands of other companies – British, American, French, German and all – have been up to for decades. China, along with India, is the site of capitalism's last great gold rush. Everybody wants a piece of the action and a dip into the disposable income of its 1.3 billion population. In Google's case, it is eyeing up the country's 100 million-plus internet users and the £84m search market. At the moment, China is second to America in the number of internet users. In a generation it might have passed the US by. How could Google, how could any firm, pass up such an opportunity?

As a contributor to the BBC's online debate about Google put it yesterday, Google is a business, not a human-rights organisation. But it says a lot about the internet, or rather those who use it, that Google should be pilloried for alleged moral failings in a way other firms are not.

To the children of the internet revolution – the kind of sad sacks like me who take the sound of a computer starting up as a friendly greeting – the web is a benevolent force. It feeds us information and clothes us with the good things in life, such as cheap holidays, handbags and the weekly shop. It is the friend in the living room, the pal in the study, always ready to answer our questions and put us in touch with the outside world. With hardly a moment's hesitation we tell it the most intimate details of our lives, sharing everything from bank details to health worries. We even allow it to babysit the children for hours on end.

Bathed in the soft glow of the computer screen, it is easy to forget that the internet is a hard-nosed business. Like most money-making ventures, it has a flexible relationship with morality. Consider the amount of pornography to which it gives house room. If ever there was a compelling case for a Chinese-style crackdown, it is porn on the net. Yet, barring some curbs on the worst excesses, it won't happen. Porn means pounds, and pounds make internet millionaires.

If there is some good to come from Google's stumble from grace it will be that we start to look at all firms making money out of the internet in a different light. The great data hunt in America, the one Google is still running from, is leading a growing number of people to wonder just how much information is held on them by companies – and what it might be used for.

That wariness, call it paranoia if you like, can only spread. Computers, after all, are two-way mirrors: all the time we have been staring at them, they have been staring back at us.

It's too late to look away now, but a few old-fashioned glances tomorrow morning would not go amiss.

Date posted: January 26, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 10