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Chinese Whispers

Sprecher Grier & Halberstam (Social Media Portal) - 07 August 2006

Chinese Whispers


Google’s decision to operate within Chinese censorship laws has raised questions about how free the internet really is writes Simon Halberstam, partner and head of e-commerce Law, Sprecher Grier Halberstam LLP


Until recently, many people believed that Google, with its ‘Do No Evil’ mantra would not even consider compromising free speech on the internet for all the tea in China. Well tea may not have swayed them, but a share in one of the world’s fastest growing economies certainly has.Photograph Simon Halberstam, Partner, Sprecher Grier Halberstam

Arguably, access to the internet renders national boundaries and local laws obsolete - whatever is out there can be accessed anywhere in the world. However China reportedly has thousands of staff blocking unapproved content and corporations like Google and Yahoo! are bound by the laws of the jurisdictions in which they operate.  If they want to take a share of the market, they have to comply with the laws of the country. Does this inevitably mean making a Faustian pact with the devil?

The BBC has reported that members of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus criticised some US firms who were putting profits before principles of free speech. This is no surprise to the many people who think that major corporations are basically amoral, but saddens the others who think that the Internet is in some way different and better than the rest.

Some commentators have leapt to the defence of Google’s China operation pointing out that the search engine megalith does at least let people know if their search results are being restricted.

This is worth thinking about. You may remember the barely comprehensible Donald Rumsfeld briefing in 2002 when he said ‘There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.’ The worst kind of censorship is when you are completely unaware that you are being censored in the first place.

It would be naïve to think that censorship does not already go on in Britain and elsewhere. British Internet Service Providers already reportedly carry out self-policing not only to combat odious practices like paedophilia but in other areas as well (for example, former President of the US, Bill Clinton wanted to remove any content that may be harmful to children that was rejected as unconstitutional).  As Rumsfeld would put it, this is an ‘unknown unknown’. Do most people in Britain really have a clear idea of the level of censorship, voluntary or otherwise, which is already applied to the internet? I don’t think we do.  

One commentator Bill Thompson has said “it is easy to overlook the fact that Internet content is censored and controlled almost everywhere. Even in the US, where the First Amendment protects speech from government interference, service providers impose terms and conditions of use that limit what can be posted online and search engines routinely take content from their indexes if it infringes copyright or is deemed inappropriate.”

This is not to say that we should all suddenly become paranoid about state censorship, but these are things equally we should not take for granted.

The Times has reported Bill Gates, Google’s arch rival as saying “I think [the Internet] is contributing to Chinese political engagement. Access to the outside world is preventing more censorship.”  There must be force to this argument. China may not be as open as we’d perhaps like, but it’s surely a good deal more open than it was even ten years ago. China cannot, Canute-like, hold back the Internet tide. Change in states like China is inevitable.

Bill Gates also added that “The idea something can truly be kept secret – that can’t happen”. That argument however misses the point. States like China are seeking to influence the hearts and minds of the majority. There will always be a dissenting minority with different sources of information.

In May this year Amnesty International launched a new campaign ‘irrepressible.info’ to combat repression on the Internet citing one example in China of “journalist Shi Tao who, in 2004, sent an email to an overseas Website describing the Chinese government's instructions on how his newspaper, Dangdai Shang Bao, should cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Yahoo! helped the Chinese authorities identify Shi through his email account. He is now serving a 10-year sentence in a Chinese jail.”

Interestingly, one novel approach to undermining censorship suggested on irrepressible.info is to publish extracts of censored material on your own site.

So where does this all leave us? Forget any ideas you may have had, that the Internet somehow conforms to a higher standard of freedom of information. The virtual world of the web is just as messy and equivocal as the real world outside. Censorship will continue to affect us all, and not just bored teenagers who want to download the Anarchists Cookbook. The web is a world of Chinese whispers.

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