Google and China, a relationship that ain’t over yet

Not so fast in believing that Google has completely ended its censorship regime in China:

Google’s operations and long-term prospects in China were shrouded in confusion , as it emerged that it is still censoring search services for its partners because of contractual obligations.

The world’s leading search engine hoped to resolve two months of uncertainty with Monday’s announcement that it had closed its mainland search service and shifted its Chinese-language facility to Hong Kong.

The territory has different laws under the “one country, two systems” formula adopted after the 1997 handover and that allows Google to display results without removing sensitive material, as promised.

But the company has over a dozen syndication deals with internet and telecommunication firms on the mainland. Those sites would break the law if they offered uncensored searches.

“Over time we won’t be syndicating censored search to partners in China but we will fulfil existing contractual obligations,” a spokesman said.

But mobile and online service provider – controlled by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing – has already dropped the Google search box from its portal, switching to Chinese rival Baidu.

And the involvement of Washington is highly problematic on many levels (not least because the US is often seen as a barrier to free and open speech):

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has called on Washington to take a stand against China‘s censorship of the internet, urging the US to make the issue a “high priority”.

Brin, talking to the Guardian about Google’s decision yesterday to lift censorship from its Chinese internet search engine, called on government and businesses to act in order to put pressure on Beijing. “I certainly hope they make it a high priority,” he said. “Human rights issues deserve equal time to the trade issues that are high priority now ”¦ I hope this gets taken seriously.”

The Obama administration has been playing down the growing conflict between one of America’s most successful companies and the Chinese authorities, suggesting that the relationship between the two countries is “mature enough to sustain differences”.

But Brin said it was vital that Obama tackled the issue – not least because the importance of the internet means that trade and censorship are inextricably linked. “Since services and information are our most successful exports, if regulations in China effectively prevent us from being competitive, then they are a trade barrier,” he said.

China web watcher Rebecca MacKinnon offers her thoughts on how the West should see the world’s largest internet community:

Many of China’s 384 million Internet users are engaged in passionate debates about their communities’ problems, public policy concerns, and their nation’s future. Unfortunately these public discussions are skewed, blinkered, and manipulated – thanks to political censorship and surveillance. The Chinese people are proud of their nation’s achievements and generally reject critiques by outsiders even if they agree with some of them. A democratic alternative to China’s Internet-age authoritarianism will only be viable if it is conceived and built by the Chinese people from within. In helping Chinese “netizens” conduct an un-manipulated and un-censored discourse about their future, the United States will not imposing its will on the Chinese people, but rather helping the Chinese people to take ownership over their own future.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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