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What’s Good for Google Is Not Good for Gu Ge

Anonymous [PersonRank 0]

Thursday, April 20, 2006
16 years ago3,210 views

<<Last week in Beijing, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google announced a re-branding of the company’s Chinese search engine (http://www.google.cn). Since its launch in January 2006, Google China has been dubbed “Gou Gou,” which means “old dog.” In a move to appear more in line with Chinese rural traditions, the new name “Gu Ge,” which means “valley song,” is meant to illustrate a “fruitful and rewarding experience.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Google China will be censored in accordance with the laws of the Chinese government. As of last week the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), the department of media censorship in Beijing, has stepped up its efforts to shut down any media outlet, including blogs, chat rooms, television, magazines, and news Web sites that publish or discuss what the government concludes is “unhealthy” or “perverted” content.

The continued censorship of media by the Chinese government and the complicity in that censorship by U.S. companies has been fermenting for the past two years. The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has documented three cases, one as recent as yesterday, whereby Yahoo! colluded with the Chinese authorities by providing information involving a journalist and two activists using Yahoo! email for activities which the Chinese charge “divulged State Secrets,” and in one case, employed “violent means” to impose democracy in China. All three cases went to trial and the evidence provided by Yahoo! was instrumental in the conviction and sentencing of the users for periods of 4–10 years in prison. RSF’s statement on one such case read, “Information supplied by Yahoo! led to the conviction of a good journalist who has paid dearly for trying to get the news out. It is one thing to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government’s abuses and it is quite another thing to collaborate.” RSF, when learning of the most recent incident stated, "Little by little we are piecing together the evidence for what we have long suspected, that Yahoo! is implicated in the arrest of most of the people that we have been defending."

This is where corporate cultural relativism gets its foothold: in the face of a legitimate national security threat, with the proper legal warrants, should Yahoo! and other companies honor their legal obligations to one government but not to another? The truth of the matter is that people, the constituents of all governments, need to combat abuses of power and hold their officials accountable. Nevertheless, when an act of government abridges fundamental human rights, there should be no ambiguity about which has primacy.

Recently, RSF has called on the World Trade Organization community to oppose China’s media censorship: “The credibility of China’s integration into the WTO requires a change in its policies towards the media. . . . We call on member countries, especially the United States, which President Hu Jintao is visiting this month, to raise this crucial issue within the WTO."

The problem of corporate complicity in human rights violations is not new. Congressman Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of a human rights subcommittee, said, “For the sake of market share and profits, leading U.S. companies like Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft have compromised both the integrity of their product and their duties as responsible corporate citizens” He later compared Yahoo’s actions to that of corporations that cooperated with Nazi Germany during WWII. Smith’s bill, titled the “Global Online Freedom Act of 2006,” is targeted to address this complicity, but is too broadly defined to pass in the House. The bill was hoped to immortalize the dictate of another New Jersey native, President Grover Cleveland, that “Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.” The sad irony is that the generation which created the medium with the most egalitarian potential—the Internet—has now lost it to multi-national corporations who will stop at nothing to reconstitute it as yet another tool for profit making and control.

American corporate response to the criticism has been calculating. The notion that foreign businesses should abide by the laws of the countries they do business in is a noble thought indeed, but when the laws violate the very principles of human freedom, whether pursuing profit or other motives, all people and organizations are responsible for taking a stand based on those principles. The problem lies in a precedent that allows corporations and wealthy individuals to decide when to obey and when to take a stand, rather than requiring continual compliance with higher standards that allow for no exceptions. U.S. corporations have a long history of making (and vetoing) laws; they cloak their activities in the legitimacy of law while exploiting loopholes, hiring lobbyists and instituting pressure tactics when it suits their needs.

Ultimately, there are bigger issues here. Why do corporations control the people’s information anyway? Shouldn’t access to information be considered a basic human right? I would say yes and suggest that “to google, googling, and to be googled” become the 21 st century addition to the UN human rights charter—as a basic of all human rights. Along with the proper enforcement mechanisms, like the newly formed UN Human Rights Council—it would give companies like Google, Yahoo!, and even smaller ventures with less economic clout, a position of much more strength when challenging these abuses of human rights.

This is where Smith’s bill falls short. The onus should not be on the corporations to make the “right” choice in regards to their China operations. It is a frightening prospect that, by virtue of an inflated market capitalization and press headlines, economic ventures like Google could be powerful enough to face down the government of one of the largest and oldest nations in the world. Governments are in theory supposed to act in the best interest of their populations. Multi-nationals like Google only act in the interest of their bottom line. A sense of enlightened self-interest may lead a corporation to do “the right thing,” but policy should not be driven by corporate interests, it must respond ultimately to the rights and needs of citizens and subjects.

China will continue to censor and U.S. corporations will continue to cash their checks. As President Hu of China embarks on his historic visit to the United States, all those with access to him, including President Bush, Bill Gates, and other political and business leaders, should insist that Hu acknowledge that human rights must come before corporate rights and the growth of the Chinese economy. China depends on international organizations and investment, and these are the forces that should be brought to bear. This is the tried and true method of international diplomacy, and while corporations should be held to a high standard of responsibility, we should not look to corporations to make our policy, and should never underestimate the arsenal of policy tools available to governments and international bodies to defend human rights.

Google’s billionaire founders still claim to abide by the company creed “You can make money without doing evil.” Yet it is clear that Google is acting more like its old name “Gou Gou”—“Old Dog”—the faithful companion that does what he is told—than the new name “Gu Ge,” which seems to fall short of its promise to provide the Chinese public a “fruitful and rewarding experience.” In this case, it appears that Google is “making money,” while China is “doing something evil.” In the April 23, 2006, edition of the New YorkTimes Magazine, Clive Thompson asks if “there are gradations of censorship” and posits that Google’s presence whether censored or not may lead to a mini-revolution, one that is “experienced mostly as one of self-actualization: empowerment in a thousand tiny, everyday ways.” I suggest that if the founders of Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft want to do right by China and feel a sense of responsibility to foster democracy—the very foundation of the Internet—they should invest in software companies like U.S.-based Ultrareach or Tor. This software allows Internet users in China to safely surf and send information, avoiding the forty thousand Internet censor officers. This could lead towards the pinnacle of success—a people’s revolution in China against censorship and for democracy and human rights. The United States was instrumental in tearing down the Berlin Wall—it is time that we enable the Chinese to tear down their “Great Firewall of China.” >>

Michael Shtender-Auerbach writes on foreign policy for The Century Foundation and is press director for the Security and Peace Initiative.

Philipp Lenssen [PersonRank 10]

16 years ago #

(Just a note that this article is written by Michael Shtender-Auerbach, but was not posted by him as first shown by the poster. Michael does allow the article to be reprinted here though.)

Support Freedom! [PersonRank 10]

16 years ago #

Amen! Excellent analysis.

Note however that the "newly formed UN Human Rights Council" will be infected with representatives from countries with the absolute worst human rights records, making the new council potentially as useless as the old.

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