31 JanWhat’s Wrong With Google Aiding Chinese Censorship? Plenty.

Doug Tygar has pointed out that Google’s efforts to assist the Chinese government censor the web are not yet perfected. Tygar points to an example of a technological glitch that, to me, also illustrates why one should have moral qualms about Google’s actions to aid the Chinese government.

Tiananmen Protestor Stopping Line of Tanks (Thumbnail) When using Google.cn’s Image search for ‘Tiananmen’ (capitalized) one currently receives almost exclusively images of the lone student protestor halting a line of Chinese tanks as well other images of the Tiananmen square protest. Presumably this is not what the Chinese government wants.
The Tiananmen (Thumbnail) However, when one uses Google.cn’s Image search for ‘tiananmen’ (uncapitalized) one currently receives almost exclusively non-descript scenic images of The Tiananmen (the entrance to the Imperial Palace Grounds). Presumably this is what the Chinese government wants both searches to produce.

(I’ve archived both pages for when Google fixes this.)

If you take a look at both of those pages you get a graphic illustration of what censorship looks like. Information related to non-violent political dissent has vanished, as if it never happened, and as if we have nothing to learn from acknowledging, recalling, or studying it. Anyone is entitled to put their head in the sand if they so choose, that’s freedom. But when a government decides on behalf of all of its citizens that they must not be allowed access to such materials, that’s the opposite of freedom.

Given two questions put to Google recently by John Battelle, we should be even more concerned:

“Given a list of search terms, can Google produce a list of people who searched for that term, identified by IP address and/or Google cookie value?”

“Given an IP address or Google cookie value, can Google produce a list of the terms searched by the user of that IP address or cookie value?”

I put these to Google. To its credit, it rapidly replied that the answer in both cases is “yes.”

Combine that ability with the Chinese government’s desire to imprison people who search for the wrong sorts of things and Google agreeing to assist the Chinese government in its censorship efforts becomes all the more disconcerting. Will Google turn over this information about Chinese dissidents? Let’s hope not. Chinese prisons do not have a sterling reputation for humane treatment of prisoners.

But even if they don’t go that far, there is a fairly simple pair of arguments that explain the logic behind the outrage over Google’s censorship of google.cn. Maybe Google didn’t think it through like this, so I’d like to help them out with the following:

  1. If a government engages in a comprehensive campaign to censor information related to non-violent a) political dissent or b) religious expression then that government is engaged in a morally reprehensible course of action. (Premise)
  2. If a corporation willingly and knowingly provides essential assistance to a government in a morally reprehensible course of action, when refusing to provide that essential assistance produces no greater harm, then that corporation is itself engaged in a morally reprehensible course of action. (Premise)
  3. The Chinese government is engaged in a comprehensive campaign to censor information related to non-violent political dissent and religious expression. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, the Chinese government is engaged in a morally reprehensible course of action. (Follows from 1 and 3).
  5. By (among other things) implementing filtering technologies at google.cn that censor information related to non-violent political dissent and religious expression, Google is willingly and knowingly providing essential assistance to the Chinese government in a morally reprehensible course of action, when refusing to provide that essential assistance would produce no greater harm. (Premise)
  6. Therefore, Google is itself engaged in a morally reprehensible course of action. (Follows from 2, 4, and 5).

I welcome counter-arguments or challenges to any of these premises, but I currently believe all the premises are uncontrovertibly true, and consequently that the above argument is valid and sound. I hope Google comes to the same set of beliefs.

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