The Internet is a Despot’s Best Friend

Those who presume there is an inherently liberatory element to online communication, that the internet never forgets, or that information wants to be free might want to engage this media literacy experiment set up by Stay Free!:

Below (you can click the thumbnail for an enlarged version) is a side by side comparison of a Google Image search for “tiananmen” on the main Google site and Google in China.

Do no evil, indeed. Don’t worry, Western governments show nothing but the utmost respect for civil liberties.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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17 Responses to The Internet is a Despot’s Best Friend

  1. another case of “it’s not as simple as that”

    If Google didn’t remove the references, the Chinese government would have blocked all of Google’s searches.

    The debate should then become – is it worth providing a large fraction of the searchable internet, at the cost of losing some important items, OR should they just pack up and leave Chinese dissidents without any usable search engine at all.

    I’d rather have at least SOME of the ‘net searchable – knowing that it isn’t a comprehensive index that’s available to me. That last part of it is rather important – this could be dangerous only if people trust Google (or any other search provider) to be providing the definitive and complete index.

    And, through the use of proxies, anyone that really wants/needs to get the info will be able.

  2. Chris L says:

    This meme about Tiananmen has been going around for a while– I’d love to visualize it. I thought I came up with it myself in my post on Jan. 25 but I suspect it was chance.

    It’s also interesting to note the reverse– as I note in my post, do a search for Xenu and get a taste of US censorship and then get around that in the Chinese search engine.

    We live in interesting times…

  3. Jeremy says:

    Wow…seeing the actual side-by-side comparison really increases the impact. Disturbing.

  4. Brian says:

    D’Arcy — I could not disagree more strongly. I am in full-on scramble mode, and it’s taking all my strength not to demolish your argument. I suggest we settle our differences like honourable amigos — I say we debate this issue either at the Weblogger Salon or at some other point this week while you are here (maybe after a couple Manhattans).

    Jeremy and Chris — thanks for the comments. Chris’s post looks awesome.

    One thing I should have made clearer, this obviously isn’t a Google issue. Every high-tech corporation is ready to pimp their public high-minded values for that Chinese market. In other news, I heard that Big Brother has an attractive call for proposals out — it’s a great opportunity for some eager company to enhance shareholder value.

  5. I’m not sure they’re removing all reference to it, just ranking results differently? Not sure, but maybe Google China ranks Chinese results higher, and there may be waaaay more content about Tiananmen in China – it’s a pretty important square, separate from the famous incident.

    I did find an image of the tanks rolling on the square in Google China, but it was a couple of pages in, after lots of vacation photos, etc…

  6. Brian says:

    D’Arcy — it will be interesting to see if that image is still there sometime later. My understanding is that China is establishing some pretty powerful content blocking procedures, with the full cooperation of pretty much everyone.

  7. Gardner says:

    I agree that the issue has complexities, though I don’t think that my ultimate evaluation changes in light of them. Grasping complexities sometimes means a complex evaluation, and sometimes it just means that you acknowledge the conversation isn’t over even though you’ve reached a strong and simple conclusion.

    My conclusion here is that, much as I respect the company for other things, Google is not part of the solution in this case. When Western companies who thrive in a free land help other countries do their repressive dirty work, I don’t think the cause of freedom is furthered. Rather the opposite.

    Except that I am fascinated that we can search the Chinese Google site–I didn’t know this was possible. On page three of that image search I discovered the first image clearly related to the Tiananmen protest: a China Daily story about the arrest of two alleged protest leaders. If that Chinese site remains searchable, it’s possible that China will find itself unwittingly aggregating example of their own repressiveness for the rest of the world to view in ways limited only by our ingenuity (and stomachs, perhaps). An interesting idea. I feel like emailing our political scientists….

    I understand I may be making a virtue of necessity here, but the prospect is interesting.

  8. A totally agree that it sucks about blocking/filtering search results. Smacks of censorship and oppression something fierce. I’m just guessing it’s aligned more with the Axis of Greed than with the Axis of Evil. The end result is approximately the same, but the intention is completely different. The Goog is trying to maximize their userbase at all costs, as is their mandate as a publicly traded company. Their first line of accountability is with their shareholders. They could actually face a lawsuit from their shareholders if they don’t do everything reasonable to maximize the value of the stock.

    Thats the ugly side of a market driven economy. If Google hadn’t done an IPO, they likely wouldn’t have had to do this.

    Doesn’t make it right, but explains their willingness to bend over for governmental bondage.

    And I’m not a shareholder. Actually, I don’t own any stock, except for my life insurance investment account.

  9. er, “I totally agree…”

    But, a total agreement. Whatever. Time to pack up for the trip over the Rocks… 🙂

  10. Chris L says:

    I think even the censored google will have more positive than negative benefits. Boycotting China has no effect, seeing the constant reminder of censorship can only be good for awareness and to battle complacency (not that I think Google made their decision for these reasons!)

    I wanted to remark on D’Arcy’s comment though– I don’t know how easy it is to get around. My understanding of “the Great Firewall” that China has implemented is that it more or less channels and filters all of the traffic in and out of the country.

    There’s some interesting info about it in Wikipedia (including another side-by-side of Google results– yay, I’m meme-streaming).

    Here in Alaska we use a lot of consumer satellite internet– some activist group should rent bandwidth on a bird in the right place and let 1000 pirate internet installations flourish.

  11. Tim Wang says:

    The search results are defintely “refined” (filtered)according to the “sensitive” state censorship. It is unfortunate for this to happen but one must see that there are sweeping changes across the media industry in China. A normal Chinese citizen can now find information about Super Bowl scores just as fast as an American. Google must agree to certain “rules” in order to reach the native Chinese market. The multi-billion dollar internet ecnomy is more than enough to make Google settle on any terms. This reminds me of “Tomorrow Never Dies”. However, one thing is for sure, there is no turning backs for China’s information revolution, a giant state sensorship proxy server isn’t gonna do the trick in the long run.

  12. Brian says:

    Turned into a good thread! Thanks everyone.

    Tim, obviously you have a lot more knowledge about the Chinese scene than I do. But my impression is that the Chinese efforts to manage the web have been quite successful. And on a selfish level, I wonder what these efforts indicate about broader ethics by the parties involved, including ones that apply here.

    I think D’Arcy’s points about money driving ethics are all too accurate, and no less terrifying than other motivations for identical behaviour.

    And again Chris, thanks for your input.

    Maybe I’m just more paranoid about encroachments by totalitarian power than most people…

  13. Jon says:

    Mis-spelling (or is that mis-transliteration?) helps: try this search, and see the first hit.

  14. Jon says:

    Sorry, that should have been fourth hit…

  15. Brian says:

    Imprecision in the cause of liberty is no vice.

  16. notebook says:

    best of the best

Comments are closed.