While the cartoon controversy between a significant percentage of the Muslim world and defenders of free expression continues to rage on at home and abroad, another contentious issue concerning censorship has received relatively little attention. Though it has not created the same sort of violent, destructive response we are witnessing in the Middle East and Pakistan, it may be an even more important component in the free-speech debate the world finds itself engulfed in.
In the totalitarian dictatorship that is China, freedom of expression is a series of words void of meaning. Political criticism, satire, or dissent directed at the government is unacceptable and is often met with a swift and heavy hand. Political dissidents are imprisoned, tortured and jailed for their "subversive" thoughts, ideas and commentary. In perhaps its most visible subjugation concerning freedom of expression, the Chinese government killed 300-400 citizens and injured 8,000 more in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, hoping to permanently quell any advocacy for governmental reform.
While public dissent in China is undoubtedly a dangerous endeavor, a number of politically savvy Chinese dissidents have begun to use the Internet as a platform for their goals. Disguised by their anonymity, these political rebels have created a marketplace of ideas where criticism of the government retains top priority.
According to the Washington Post, China has 111 million people online and 20,000 more joining them every day. Second only to the United States in Internet users, China had become breeding ground for an information highway that knew no end. That is, until the government colluded with American tech-companies eager and willing to help.
Armed with an expansive firewall, the Chinese government has been able to police the Internet for subversive material since joining the global web in 1994. According to Amnesty International, at least 30,000 state security personnel are reportedly monitoring websites, chat rooms and private e-mail messages on a daily basis. Punishment for subversion can be as extreme as death — in January 2001, a new regulation made it a capital crime to "provide state secrets" to organizations and individuals over the Internet.
While a number of prominent dissidents were arrested for their publication of words or thoughts on Internet sites, the Chinese government has grown increasingly wary over its inability to fully monitor the expansive web. In order to combat this emerging problem, it has elicited the help of a number of high-tech businesses and media companies in our own backyard.
Companies include Yahoo, which provided information about its user's email accounts that aided government officials in their conviction of political dissidents in 2003 and 2005. Microsoft decided to a close a popular blog that offended Chinese censors. Additionally, Cisco has sold technology that helps the government restrict Web site it considers detrimental and harmful.
However, no company has cooperated as openly with the government as Google. Hoping to gain access to a market of 1.3 billion people and a nascent economy, Google unveiled its search engine specifically tailored to government censor's approval two weeks ago. Google.cn replaces a Google.com that was almost inefficient and ineffective inside China, due to government restrictions and blatant censorship.
Working with government officials, Google staffers have ensured the totalitarian regime that information, images or links to Web sites deemed inappropriate or objectionable are never seen. Images of Tiananmen Square are sugarcoated. Information about the banned religious group, Falun Gong, simply does not exist.
Defending itself and its corporate motto, "Don't Be Evil," Google representatives have remained largely silent about their partnership with the Chinese government. In its one public statement, senior policy counsel, Andrew McLaughlin, said, "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information — or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information — is more inconsistent with our mission."
Google's reticence is not surprising, nor a novelty act. Driven by profit, it has subordinated its worthy objective of facilitating the sharing of global information for avaricious gains. Its decision to see its stock price rise at the cost of protecting and spreading one of the most fundamental tenets of a free society is disappointing and alarming. China continues to cast an iron grip over those who summon the courage to think, speak and act freely. Google's latest business move has only served to strengthen the firm hold China retains over its citizens hearts and minds.
Josh Moskowitz ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and journalism.