Google and China – how’s the transparent censorship going?

It comes to my notice that I’m a big Google user – search with Google, aggregate with Google, receive Google alerts, email with Gmail, make use of Google online word-processing and spreadsheets, flit around Google Earth and even have a Google desktop. It isn’t even Googlecreep – while I periodically try out other products, I continue to find these Google ones convenient, reliable and easy to use (although Blogger is horrible – that’s why I don’t use it. As you can see I use WordPress). So as well as being very joined-up I’m also very vulnerable to Google hackers.

I’ll positively discriminate in favour of free/libre software where using it isn’t purgatory. I’m also prepared to lobby Google and/or move to alternatives (ideally OSS) if I’m persuaded that Google’s gone to the dark side.

For now though I may as well resign myself to being ambivalent to and preoccupied by Google.

Although Google does censor to fulfill local legal requirements, it has also successfully defended its search engine against significant pressure, from different quarters, to censor on ethical rather than legal grounds. One example is the Jew hate instance I blogged about earlier, and other types of abuse and hate have also mobilised Google users to campaign for censorship.

Despite this track record, last year Google decided to cooperate with the Chinese government’s project to promote a ‘healthy‘ online culture, amidst a lot of controversy – the reasons it gave were that that Chinese citizens deserved Google (I’m sure somebody must have mentioned how much sound commercial sense it made too). Here’s what they said they’d do:

Chinese regulations will require us to remove some sensitive information from our search results. When we do so, we’ll disclose this to users, just as we already do in those rare instances where we alter results in order to comply with local laws in France, Germany and the U.S.

So Google said it would make clear to its Chinese public exactly what was being censored, enabling Chinese public to identify instances of censorship – i.e. as ‘known unknowns’. Certainly, compared to ‘unknown unknowns’ this would count for something. I can make a case for it. Also, Google undertook not to disclose the identities of ‘dissidents’ using certain search terms to the Chinese government (although Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch feels that Google is on a slippery slope), and refused to offer Gmail or Blogger because to do so would have involved abiding by China’s anti-privacy laws. However Google was caught filtering Chinese news back in 2004, so we know we have to check up on them.

Google took a lot of flak for the decision to cooperate with the Chinese government and much was made of an admission that it had been a mistake – but it continues to offer google.cn. And so far, unlike Yahoo, there’s no indication that it’s helped the Chinese government to identify dissidents. In fact, since the initial flurry of criticism, things have been pretty quiet.

So what does the censorship mean in practice for Chinese Google users? Well it’s a little bit difficult to know. The results for at least one sensitive term are notorious for being wildly different between China and the US – see Tiananmen Square. On .cn it’s all flowers, tourists and vaseline lens. On .com, tanks and piled up corpses.

You can reproduce these searches yourself on google.cn and google.com, or on http://oyoy.eu/google/world/. In different Googles, you can see the extent to which a site has been censored by prefixing the domain with site: in the Search field – like this: site:news.bbc.co.uk and comparing across countries. And on http://opennet.net/ you can see if a given site is blocked in a large number of different countries, suggest a site to test, and see overviews of different countries’ filtering practices.

But although Google acquiesces to an enormous amount of censorship in China, is Google itself censoring results or is it rather going along with the Chinese government’s decision to block pages?

The Google search algorithm automates the order of the results based on their PageRank. Presumably – and lack of time’s prevented me from doing more extensive research than asking a few friends who said they didn’t know – the PageRank of a given page is directly affected if China decides to block it or its site (does China block at the individual page level, or just the site level)? PageRank is national, or at least regional, isn’t it? Which seems to suggest that Google isn’t itself technically carrying out censorship – the fewer Chinese sites link to the picture of the corpses, the lower its PageRank. And if the picture of the corpses is blocked then, if I have this right, it’s not going to have a PageRank in China at all – leaving searchers with the flowers and tourists.

I don’t read Chinese so well – is there a notice about censorship on the results? There’s supposed to be, I think. Or are unknown unknowns creeping in which could make Google a party to the collective Chinese amnesia about the massacre perpetrated by the Chinese authorities against demonstrators in Tiananmen Square?

What about the censored pages themselves? On Sites Google Agreed to Censor, if you scroll down to the Human Rights Watch example you can see that everything’s been blocked – there’s an untranslated notice. Ditto the International Campaign for Tibet. The Victims of Communism site is absent from the search for Communism and results for porn seem pretty thin too.

On the other hand, Wikipedia founder Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, whose not-for-profit Wikia is currently working on an Open search engine, rules out censorship. Textbook example of how liberation from market pressures can transcend oppressive governments? Well… to be honest, not in the case of China – all that happens is the Chinese government picks up the censorship reins Wikia throws away. Wikipedia is hugely filtered in China.

And I don’t know whether its unknowns are known or unknown. No disrespect to Wikia – on the contrary. I’m just trying to figure out where quixotic gesture begins to have ethical weight.

I’m tired and not too happy with this post. Maybe somebody will fill me in if I publish it.

And my house is crawling, simply crawling, with different species of arachnid, small and very large, tipsy and rapid, all of which I feel obliged to let go about their business while I twitch with horror and feel them all over me when they’re not.

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