31 January 2006


BBC’s Bill Thompson plays Devil’s advocate for Google

Lately I've been thinking that our blog could be used more effectively as a platform for the discussion of important issues and sharing ideas, as well as reporting our news, and just recently I've been given the perfect chance to start such a debate.

Bill Thompson, technology critic for the BBC, has given his opinion on Google's launch of the self-censored google.cn in an article entitled Why Google in China makes sense. I think it goes without saying that this is hardly a scathing response to the recent move by the internet giant which he says "should be supported for its brave decision". I'm sorry Bill, but an internet activist who puts his life on the line in China is brave, a monk who risks torture to denounce the Dalai Lama in a Tibetan monastery is brave, an international corporation that rejects its principles in order to please a totalitarian dictatorship and make a quick buck is just plain cowardly.

Amongst his arguments in favour of Google is the fact that other companies have launched self-censored search engines in order to break into the Chinese market with little response from the western media. Firstly, the fact that Yahoo and MSN have also decided to censor their searches in order to appease the Chinese government is absolutely no justification for Google doing it and is equally deplorable. Secondly, the media's lack of response to these previous moves can hardly be considered an endorsement of Yahoo et al.

Mr Thompson then goes on to compare Google's censorship in China to that of search engine providers in Europe and North America, pointing out that we are not informed when we are denied access to a website due to its content, where as Chinese Google users will be. But how on earth can you compare blocking child pornography in the UK to denying access to pro-democracy websites in China? One is to prevent child abuse, the other to keep an oppressive dictatorship in power. And as one of my colleagues on Tibet Will Be Free sarcastically pointed out "I'm sure a Tibetan at an internet cafe in Lhasa with government printed signs reading "Do not use Internet for any political or other unintelligent purposes" doesn't know that the Chinese Communist Party doesn't want them reading information on Tibetan independence...".

Finally, he ends with the point: "Constructive engagement in a way that respects but also challenges local law seems a far better option [than a technological blockade], and that, for all its risks, is what Google is attempting to do". Whilst I agree that constructive engagement is a good way to go on this issue, I don't think this is how Google's actions can be described. To begin with, Google's only "challenge" to this incredibly unjust "local law" seems to be telling Chinese internet users what they already know (i.e. that they're not allowed to access 'politically sensitive' material), not exactly daring. The word "constructive" would also imply that some positive change will come as a result of this, but what incentive is there for change, especially when Google seem to be endorsing the government's internet censorship in China?

There is one thing that Bill Thompson can be thanked for, there is a great picture of SFT veteran Thupten Tsering at the protest outside Google HQ in his article. Thanks to Thupten's T-shirt, I think we may have the first appearance of the SFT logo on the BBC, even if it is a bit obscured.

If you would like to voice your opinion on this article or the launch of google.cn please post a comment.

Hi there - I think you're trying to overstate the case against Google being in China, and while I understand that using my article to start a discussion means that you have to summarise the points I'm making, I think you should be a little less harsh.

I am completely opposed to the Chinese government and what they are doing, and I support free Tibet and consider the occupation an unacceptable act that should end as soon as possible. But in looking for a way to achieve that I see that China is powerful and feted by many Western leaders. The only option I can see that will lead to change is, as I've said, constructive engagement which allows small steps to be taken - and that is what Google is trying to do. You're right, they aren't brave like a monk who stands up to soldiers, but in company terms they are trying to do something - and showing that search results are censored is a small start.

If it doesn't lead to progress I'll accept I was wrong - but I think we should try.

Hi Bill

thanks for your comment. Perhaps I was a little harsh with some of the comments I made, but this is something I feel very strongly about.

I still think that Google are unjustified in their actions. Most internet users in China already know that what they look at on the internet is censored, so by telling them, Google aren't doing anything especially significant. However, google.cn will help to spread the Chinese governments propaganda and lies on such issues as Tibet and Tianenman Square. I frequently meet Chinese students who tell me that the Dalai Lama was an evil slave owner and that Tibet has always been a part of China. By denying people any access to arguments to the contrary, or even the simple truth on these matters, they are effectively helping to perpetuate this distorted view of the world and undermining our efforts to bring freedom to Tibet. No company that prides itself on facilitating the free flow of information and knowledge should be doing this.

Like you, I would really like Google's move to bring progress on free speech in China, but I can't see how it will and for now it is doing more harm than good.
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