Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Google and the Cyber Infiltration

Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Google and the Cyber Infiltration

Article excerpt

In mid-January of this year, Google threatened to pull its business out of China unless China lifted filters of its search engine results that resulted in censorship of so-called "sensitive content." At the end of March, having obtained no concession from the Chinese government to back down on its draconian online censorship, Google acted on its threat by closing down its www.google.cn search engine, but diverting all searches on that page to www.google.hk, so that Mainland Chinese doing a Google search could continue to get results in the Chinese language. (Though google.hk is not filtered, all web contents found by Mainland Chinese users are universally filtered for "sensitive" materials.) The motives behind Google's decision are likely complex. But whatever its motives, Google may have done some good by spotlighting and picking a fight with cyber censorship and cyber infiltration. Google and other foreign Internet technology corporations should have protested a long time ago, even at the cost to their own profit, and should never have accepted censorship as a precondition for entering the Chinese market.

Many Americans may not know that Google's search engine in China, www.google.cn, very likely had accepted ethically compromising conditions set by Chinese authorities to filter "sensitive" words, thus contributing to upholding the Chinese government's Great Fire Wall to block Chinese users' access to open information online. An easy test could be performed to demonstrate how much information had been censored by Google.cn. A user outside the Great Fire Wall could search for words such as "Tiananmen incident," or "Falun Gong," on both google.cn and google.com.

One would see two very different pages of search results. In volume, the Google.com search produces 10-15 times more results than Google.cn does. In content, predictably, the results out of Google.cn are one-sided, reflecting the government's point of view. It is difficult for Chinese users to link directly to Google.com and gmail (which is hosted outside China); connecting from China is either very slow or not accessible. And like all websites outside the country, once opened in China, Google.com's search results are subjected to censorship--politically sensitive contents would also be filtered and some pages are blocked.

Engaging in self-censorship by filtering information that the Chinese government wants to block from users in China is a seriously questionable practice. Google has projected an ethical image of doing business about itself. Google wants to be known for its commitment to promoting online free communication and open information. Its corporate motto is "Do no harm." Any such ethical commitment comes with strings attached--that it should not be set aside for purposes of convenience or other (ethically irrelevant) gains such as market strategies. The generality and consistency requirements of ethical commitments mean that Google should never have entered China by accepting censorship as a precondition.

One plausible argument for entering the Chinese market even if it means obeying ethically compromising local regulations is this: Internet companies will get a significant market share of the world's largest pool of potential users, 1.3 billion. This will not only enable American companies to make a profit, but also enable Chinese users to benefit from information technology. While some politically sensitive information is blocked, according to this argument, the vast majority of the Chinese population only need "un-sensitive" information about products, services, or daily life necessities in an increasingly modernized society.

This argument glosses over a morally problematic presupposition that the Chinese people, ruled by a different kind of regime, do not care about having the option of accessing free, undistorted information in an unobstructed cyber space. It is possible that this option, while available to all Americans, is not necessarily taken advantage of by everybody. …

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