Halfway around the world, when a Chinese student sits down at her computer and conducts the same Google search, her results will tell a much different story about Tiananmen Square. She will not find information about the massacre that occurred in 1989. Instead, she will view photos depicting this beautiful plaza and learn that Tiananmen Square is the largest city square in the world.
This example demonstrates the great divide between Internet users in the United States and users in China, Iran, Eqypt, Venezuela, Russia and other nations that censor access to information on the web. These governments say they restrict Internet freedom to protect their citizens and combat problems such as pornography, terrorism and hate speech. These problems are real, but as Secretary of State Clinton recognized in her speech on Internet freedom, “these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes.”
Last December, Google reportedly became aware that its networks, as well as the networks of 20 other companies, were the target of Chinese hackers. Google further determined that its Gmail accounts were not secure and that human rights activists in China were being targeted. According to published reports, those events proved to be the last straw for Google, which has struggled to maintain its delicate relationship with the Chinese government since its decision in 2006 to offer a censored version of its search engine there. Though Google has always known that government censorship would be a key condition for tapping into China’s lucrative market, the company had hoped its investment might lead to a more open society. Instead, China has continued to enforce a parallel, closed Internet system that conflicts with the core values of Google and many of the global companies that continue to operate in China. When the Chinese government refused to work with Google to address these important human rights concerns, Google apparently concluded it had no option but to shut down its search operation in China.
Last week, GoDaddy.com followed Google’s example and announced that it would no longer register domain names in China. Importantly, GoDaddy made public the Chinese governments insistence that it receive extensive user information as a condition of domain name registration. It also announced that China’s demands for user information had made it impossible for GoDaddy to continue to operate in China without violating its core corporate principles.
Unlike users in China, Google’s users in Hong Kong enjoy unfettered Internet access—for now. But Google’s announcement that it will redirect users in China to its search engine in Hong Kong could create problems for the company’s operations there. Though it remains to be seen whether China will seek to disrupt Google’s services in Hong Kong, it is clear that China will not abandon its model of a closed Internet and will continue to export its model to other like minded governments with which it shares strategic and commercial ties.
Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft have joined the Global Network Initiative, a multistakeholder initiative created to address threats to Internet freedom. Working closely with other GNI members, these corporate pioneers already have acknowledged publicly that Internet freedom and user privacy are important human rights that transcend political beliefs and boundaries. The Global Network Initiative offers those companies, and all companies in the ICT industry, a way to work collaboratively to devise effective strategies for resisting government threats to freedom of expression and privacy and ensuring respect for human rights in their global operations.
The stakes in this fight are clear. All ICT companies—regardless of where they may operate today—should care deeply about what happens to Google and GoDaddy in the months ahead. Next time, other ICT companies could be targeted by government censorship, surveillance or hacking in their operations around the world.
In withdrawing from China, Google and GoDaddy have put a spotlight on the high stakes of the global battle for Internet freedom. For the companies, it’s about market access and commercial expansion into the developing world. For both the companies and their users, it’s also about the quality and integrity of the services available. This fight will require companies, investors, academics and non-governmental organizations that care about the human rights of Internet freedom and privacy, and countries around the world, to band together in support of Internet access to all, for all.