My book The Blogging Revolution thoroughly examines the complicity of Western multinationals such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo in assisting online censorship in oppressive regimes.
Nicholas Kristof in his blog on the New York Times discovers how shocking this situation has become. Lesson for the day; never trust the word of corporate executives (especially when we learn today that Microsoft may help News Corporation remove its content from Google, an utterly pointless act in an age of massive, online information):
Critics have accused President Obama of kowtowing to Chinese leaders, by failing to meet dissidents, toning down his criticisms and delaying a meeting with the Dalai Lama. On balance, I think that criticism is premature: Confrontation doesn’t help with China and can hurt, and so engagement becomes a fine line to navigate. The Obama visit wasn’t a ringing success, but neither was it a craven embarrassment.
For the latest craven kowtowing, we can look somewhere else: Microsoft and its new search engine, Bing.
Western corporations have often behaved embarrassingly in China, sacrificing any principles to ingratiate themselves with the Communist Party authorities. Yahoo was the worst, handing over information about several email account holders so that they could be arrested – and then dissembling and defending its monstrous conduct. Now Microsoft is sacrificing the integrity of Bing searches so as to cozy up to State Security in Beijing. In effect, it has chosen become part of the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus.
If you search a term on Bing that is politically sensitive in China, in English the results are legitimate. Search “Tiananmen” and you’ll find out about the army firing on pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Search Dalai Lama, Falun Gong and you also get credible results. Conduct the search in complex Chinese characters (the kind used in Taiwan and Hong Kong) and on the whole you still get authentic results.
But conduct the search with the simplified characters used in mainland China, then you get sanitized pro-Communist results. This is especially true of image searches. Magic! No Tiananmen Square massacre. The Dalai Lama becomes an oppressor. Falun Gong believers are villains, not victims.
What’s most offensive is that this is true wherever in the world the search is conducted – including in my office in New York. If Microsoft felt it had to bow to Chinese censorship within China’s borders, based on the IP address, that might be defensible. But when Microsoft skews its worldwide searches to make Hu Jintao feel better, that’s a disgrace. It becomes simply a unit of the Central Committee Propaganda Department.