Monday, 15 March 2010

Google, China and Co: where do we draw the line between the acceptable and the not-so-acceptable?

A long silence, partly because I was busy scrolling down the shelves at Cambridge (UK) library for books before my fellowship at CRASSH ended. I still have a few books to read, but today I am trying to go through the amassed cuts of newspapers' articles.
So let us review the story about Google rethinking its policy in China. Much ink has been spilled over the issue.
First, Google made its annoucement on 13 January 2010, a date that feels a bit like a new year/new resolution statement. The annoucement was not to censor anymore its search results on Google China, whether or not requested by Chinese authorities. The consequences, i.e. the possible end of any business presence in China, were recognised as a possibility. What seems to have triggered the decision was a series of cyberattacks against Chinese human rights activists. (Guardian, 13 January 2010, front page and page 3).
"Google to end censorship in China over cyber attacks" (Tania Branigan, TheGuardian, 13 January 2010)
"Google counts cost of censorship and draws red line under China" (Bobbie Johnson, TheGuardian, 13 January 2010)

On the details of the attacks, see Guardian 14 January 2010 and 15 January 2010.
"Google acted on censorship amid China dissident fears" (TheGuardian, printed version 14 January 2010, front page)
"Google's move on Chinese censorship welcomed by human rights activists"
(TheGuardian, 14 January 2010, page 14)
"Accounts invaded, computers infected – human rights activists tell of cyber attacks", The Guardian, printed version 15 January 2010

The attacks bring into light how internet communications are central to governmental response to politics, including war. "Cyber-warfare 'is growing threat'" The Guardian, 4 February 2010, page 7; similarly, six months ago, "MyDoom virus hits key networks in US and South Korea" The Guardian, 9 July 2009, page 16 (the title in the printed version is slightly different: "Cyber attacks paralyse government computers in US and South Korea"). But for a different vision on a 'supposed' cyberwar: "White House Cyber Security Guy: There Is No Cyberwar", TechDirt, 9 March 2010

However, the cynics add that Google never made the money it expected to make; it has only one third of the search engines market in China which is dominated by Baidu= Governmental Chinese version of search engine. So its decision may not rest so much on willingness to defend democratic values through guaranteeing freedom of expression, than on profit-making interests.
In addition, Google's decision in 2006 to censor results hurt the company's reputation, so much that one of its founder, Sergey Brin, called it a "net negative" (see Guardian's article, 13 January 2010, page 3; and page 14, 14 January 2010).

Nevertheless, cynicism may not be so much on the agenda. Let us face it: Google is not the new knight defending freedom of expression without awaiting something in return. On the other hand, personal history certainly plays a role here. Sergey Brin emigrated to the US in 1979, aged six, with his parents who were victims of anti-semitism, even under the then-USSR. (Guardian's, Tania Branigan, 14 January 2010, front page).

China's reaction was at the beginning cautious... and heavily censored as few headlines made it on the newspapers/online versions in China itself. Some commentators, pro-governmental line, did not see Google's decision as 1) affecting China much (there are other search engines), 2) as a desinterested decision (aka, Google does not make enough profit to stay).

What seems to emerge on the side, with other companies finding it difficult to enter the Chinese market, is a picture of full protection of Chinese interests (economic or not) against foreign companies and Governments. It fits with a presentation I attended in September 2009 at the Society for Legal Scholars (SLS) in Keele, where the speaker demonstrated that Chinese law favoured chinese contract law in all dispute resolutions, a concept that systematically discards foreign law; in other words, private international law in China is resolved by the quasi-systemic application of local law to the exclusion of foreign law. An article on the International Herald Tribune of 14 January 2010 page 15 is quite revealing on those behaviours. The article even ends up by saying, in more polite form, that foreign companies sell their soul to China, accepting to give for free, for fear of loosing a market share, what they would never have tolerated in other countries. I know the story is not exagerated. In his second volume on Globalisation, which focuses on Water, Eric Orsenna (French Academician and writer) explains that the French company Alstom more or less gave the plans of its water turbines for the three Dams on the yellow river, in exchange for obtaining the market... Except that the turbine plan is now copied and Alstrom not needed...

"China stifles news of Google’s defiance", The International Herald Tribune, 14 January 2010 (p. 1)
"Google Is Not Alone in Discontent, But Its Threat Stands Out", The New York TImes, 14 January 2010 (by the way, this habit of the NYT and IHT not to use the same title in the printed and online version is frankly annoying).
Eric Orsenna, L'avenir de l'eau : Petit précis de mondialisation II (Broché), Fayard 2008 (The future of water: little manual on globalisation II - NB: the first volume was on coton and is as interesting as the second, if anybody can read French - by the way, it is not a complicated French although it is beautifully written).

If we take into account China's policy in conducting business, then it appears very clearly that accepting to censor the results could only amount to failure in terms of believing that the economy will allow for freedom of expression to grow. The economy is in itself a close circuit; nothing from the outside will penetrate it, especially NOT freedom of expression. After 30 years of economic "liberalisation", the West should start looking at the full picture, rather than avoiding the issue: China will not become a democracy by free market. See James Kynge, "Full circle", Financial Times 16/17 January 2010.
"China and the west: Full circle", Financial TImes, 15 January 2010 (printed version, 16/17 january 2010 (like for the Guardian, can't they just give one date???)
Viewed under that light, Bill Gates' comment is not as irresponsible as it may first appear. It is a realist comment: that anyone doing business in China has to accept the fact that democracy is out of question. Then the question is: does one have the guts, to take a familiar expression, not to do business? The West's answer so far is certainly not living to its Enlightenment's ideals.
"Playing the wall game in China" The Guardian, 18 January 2010

Additionally see:
"Google may lose business, but gains good will", Miguel Helft, International Herald Tribune, printed version January 16/17, 2010 (can't find the link online)
"Why fearful china stamps out dissent", Peter Beaumont, The Observer, 17 January 2010, p. 22 (can't find the link online either)
Will Google stand up to France and Italy, too? The Guardian, 14 January 2010

"China Issues Another Warning to Google on Enforced Censorship of the Internet" link to NY Times by Business and HR website, 12 March 2010

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