Google vs. China: Net censorship, 'information imperialism'

The war of words between the United States and China heats up, thanks in part to Google and the U.S. State Department

Information imperialists unite! You have nothing to lose but your Gmail accounts.

Yes, "information imperialists" -- that's what the People's Republic of China is calling us now, thanks to Google and the U.S. State Department. Hey, it's as good a description as any.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Find out how it all started in "Google's China problem (and ours)" | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

The blowback against Google's announcement that it was hacked by Chinese cyber agents -- and in response would be lifting the restrictions that keep users of its Chinese search engine in the dark -- has been utterly fascinating. (PC World's JR Raphael serves up a nice summary of Google-China history.)

I'm trying to remember the last time a corporate decision -- and really, not so much the decision as the public way it was announced -- turned into an international incident. I'm drawing a blank. Anybody out there in Cringeville think of anything?

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upped the ante in a speech calling for Internet freedom across the globe. She said the United States would actively encourage the development of technology to circumvent restrictions on Internet access -- something private companies like Anonymizer.com have been doing on their own for a while. Sayeth Madame Secretary:

Both the American people and nations that censor the Internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote Internet freedom... We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics.

Needless to say, that didn't sit well with the "Internet censorship? What Internet censorship?" crowd on the other side of the planet.

Per All Things D:

In a statement posted to China's foreign ministry Web site, Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said the United States should "cease using so-called Internet freedom to make groundless accusations against China. The US has criticised China's policies to administer the internet, and insinuated that China restricts internet freedom. This runs contrary to the facts and is harmful to China-US relations. We urge the United States to respect the facts....China's Internet is open."

And by "open," they mean open to all right-minded citizens who have never typed the words "Falun Gong," "Dalai Lama," or "Tiananmen Square massacre" into their search engines. Otherwise, it's not so open -- more like open just a crack in a room without electricity.

Get the feeling these people are so used to lying that they can no longer tell when they're doing it?

The Beijing-friendly English-language Global Times published a scathing editorial earlier today opposing Clinton and Google. It claims to have broad support among the Chinese people:

... Google's threat to pull out of China ... has stirred widespread debate among the public in China. The recent poll conducted by huanqiu.com shows a growing number of people voicing opposition to an unregulated or uncensored Google in China. As many as 81 percent of those polled are opposed to Chinese government accepting Google's demands.

Interestingly, that's the same percentage of Chinese who replied that they didn't want to spend the next 30 years scrubbing Premier Wen Jiabao's toilets. What an amazing coincidence! As for the 19 percent who agreed with Google lifting the censorship veil, well, let's just say old Wen won't have to worry about his toilets for a long long time.

It goes on:

It is not because the people of China do not want free flow of information or unlimited access to Internet, as in the West. It is just because they recognize the situation that their country is forced to face.

Unlike advanced Western countries, Chinese society is still vulnerable to the effect of multifarious information flowing in, especially when it is for creating disorder.

And by "multifarious information" they mean things like the fact the people of Tibet probably don't appreciate being squashed like a bug under the boot heels of China. Certainly can't have them Googling that, now can we? You might end up with disorder. Or tanks in the streets. Which you can view footage of on YouTube -- unless, of course, you live in China.

Also: I'm sorry, but can someone out there explain to me how a country can be considered unadvanced and vulnerable when it has a) a highly sophisticated culture dating back more than 5,000 years, b) 384 million netizens, c) electronics plants that build things like the iPhone, and d) the Bomb? Cuz I'm a little confused about that.

Bottom line: All governments lie and all governments spy. Uncle Sam is as guilty of that as any, regardless of which party is occupying the White House. But (unlike in China) you can read all about it on the InterWebs and argue about it in bars, without having to worry about spending time behind them.

It's when the Net is used as a tool for lying and spying that things go over the line. I think China understands that as well as anybody. Good luck getting them to admit it.

If you were Google, what would you do? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This story, "Google vs. China: When Internet censorship meets 'information imperialism'," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.

This story, "Google vs. China: Net censorship, 'information imperialism'" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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