Google Compliance with Censorship Demands will Embolden China and other Repressive Governments
Washington, DC Human Rights First today voiced disappointment that only months after challenging China's censorship policies and announcing a review of its Chinese operations, Google appears to be backing down. In an effort to get China to renew its operating license there, Google yesterday announced it would suspend a recent practice of redirecting users of Google.cn, where searches are censored, to its Hong Kong site, which is uncensored.
"Google drew a line in the sand earlier this year when it finally stood up to China. But now, when it comes time to holding that line against the persistent wave of Chinese censorship demands, Google seems to have lost its resolve," said Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino. "This does not bode well for Internet freedom, and it's a reminder that companies no matter how well intentioned or smart can't 'go it alone' in challenging repressive government practices."
In January, Google announced "a new approach to China," a decision sparked by the discovery that its site had been hacked. The hackers were after Google's intellectual property and the G-mail accounts of human rights activists. Google said then that it was no longer willing to censor its search results and would review its operations in China. In its announcement, the company noted "over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China."
In March, Google adopted an "automatic redirect" policy. It was short lived. In its place, Google will provide a link that Chinese users can click to access the Hong Kong site; however, mainland users cannot follow the link to google.com.hk unless they are using circumvention tools because it is blocked by the firewall. Sophisticated users who are already taking steps to avoid censorship will be able to get unfiltered search results but average users will be presented with the illusion of an option that won't actually work for them.
Massimino noted, "This case has implications for Internet users around the globe. China's tough stand and Google's apparent capitulation will embolden regimes in Iran, Egypt, Belarus, Russia, and affect the business environment for the entire Internet and telecommunications sector. Google and other companies in this sector must get as serious about defending Internet freedom as China is about maintaining its firewall. This is an early salvo in the long battle for Internet freedom, and it's important that the industry leaders stand tough."
To address these issues, Human Rights First joined the Global Network Initiative (GNI) which brings businesses, investors and other stakeholders together to promote transparency and a collaborative and unified response to repressive practices. Google is a charter GNI member. The initiative was formed to use the industry's leverage in innovation to bring repressive government practices to light, and to counter them with policies that promote openness and access. For more information about the GNI, visit http://www.globalnetworkinitiative.org/.