Blown To Bits

Private Censorship

Monday, January 18th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Google’s stated rationale for threatening to pull out of China is the withering barrage of cyberattacks it has experienced, apparently aimed at getting access to the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents. In an article that appeared this morning, Rebecca MacKinnon presses on another aspect of the Google-in-China drama: China’s insistence that Google censor its search results. That was, of course, what created the dilemma for Google in the first place, and caused the initial controversy. A part of me thought that pulling out because of the cyber-attacks—happy though it made me—was a bit of a cop-out, suggesting that it would be happy to keep on censoring if only the Chinese crackers would cut out their attacks.

In China, if companies fail to track and remove content or block conversations that regulators deem violate laws or regulations (a court or judge is almost never involved), they risk heavy fines at best and permanent shutdown at worst. …

To operate in China, Google’s local search engine,, had to meet these “self-discipline” requirements. When users typed words or phrases for sensitive subjects into the box and clicked “search,” was responsible for making sure that the results didn’t include forbidden content. …

Ever since launched in 2006, I’ve occasionally run tests to see how its compares to its homegrown competitor Baidu. consistently censored less than Baidu did. This is how Google executives justified the ethics of their presence in China: Chinese users, they argued, were still better off with than without it.

Things changed for Google in 2009, however. Regulators demanded that it ramp its self-censorship up to Baidu’s level. The Chinese state-run media attacked Google numerous times for failing to protect youth from smutty Web sites when — horror of horrors — those innocent kids happened to type in smutty words and phrases.

Now the important message in MacKinnon’s column is the effectiveness of self-censorship, and how hard it is to fight—and that for that reason, other countries are trying their own versions.

From France to Italy to the United Kingdom, the idea of holding carriers and services liable for what their customers do is seen as the cheapest and easiest solution to the law enforcement and social problems that have gotten tougher in the digital age — from child porn to copyright protection to cyber-bullying and libel.

“Not Your Father’s Censorship,” to use the title of a piece I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Ed last year. The argument for open publication, and holding the intermediaries blameless for the sins of the authors, is not an easy one. Before anyone goes down that path in search of a safer society, it is worth taking the Chinese example to heart.

Comments are closed.