22 Jan

Is Freedom of Search a Human Right?

Posted By polity_admin_user

Last week, Google, the company behind the world’s most popular search engine, announced that it is considering pulling out of China after discovering that the Gmail accounts of campaigners for human rights in China had been attacked [Google statement here: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/new-approach-to-china.html?]. Google said only two accounts had actually been accessed and very limited information gained, but ‘at least twenty’ other large companies had been attacked and campaigners based in China, the US and Europe had their accounts attacked via ‘phishing’ scams and malware. No firm accusation was made against the Chinese authorities, but the implication of Google’s statement is that, having traced the source of these highly organized and well-orchestrated attacks to China, government sources are attempting to garner information on human rights activism. As a result, the company says it is no longer willing to censor its search results in China (Google.cn).

Google’s championing of the right to ‘freedom of search’ rings pretty hollow for some who have tracked the company’s move into the Chinese market. Google first opened in China in January 2006 but, in order to do so, also agreed to censor some search terms to meet Chinese laws on Internet use; these included search terms that would bring up material on controversial topics, such as ‘Tiananmen’ (the site in Beijing of the massacre of protesters by the Chinese military in 1989), ‘Falun Gong’ (a banned spiritual movement whose followers have allegedly been persecuted by the Chinese government) and ‘Dalai Lama’ (a Buddhist spiritual leader revered in Tibet, a disputed Chinese territory). Critics saw the company putting profit before human rights in a move that was also against the company motto – ‘don’t be evil’. Google, though, saw it as constructive engagement with the Chinese government in order to help promote civil liberties and change China’s stance on freedom and openness. The latest episode appears to be an acknowledgement that this policy has failed, although Google says it will still sit down with the authorities soon to see if an agreement on an uncensored search engine can be found before it pulls out of China altogether. Cynics also point out that China’s most popular search engine is not Google, which has only around 31% market share, but a Chinese engine, Baidu, with around 64% (in Chinese: http://www.baidu.com/). Has Google found it more difficult to break into China and not achieved the kind of profits it was looking for? Does that mean the Chinese gamble has not been worth the damage done to Google’s corporate brand in the rest of the world (‘we’re good not evil’)? 

Is this issue really as obvious as Google’s rather simplistic good and evil view of the world suggests? Chinese censorship, especially political censorship, is undoubtedly extensive and the overall system has been described as the Great Firewall of China for good reason. The BBC, which has suffered an almost complete ban, says that around 50,000 Chinese authorities spend all of their time monitoring Internet traffic. But government secret services around the world, including those in the USA and Europe, routinely monitor communications, email exchanges and blogs, particularly of anyone suspected of involvement in extremism and terrorist activity in our age of a ‘new’ terrorism and heightened security fears. Similarly, search engines screen out certain results in order to comply with, say, child protection laws in the UK. Are these good or evil practices? At a lower level, anyone who has tried to carry out research knows that even university IT systems operate with lists of proscribed websites, sometimes including legal organizations such as the British National Party, that are not freely available to students or staff without special dispensation. Monitoring, intervention and censorship on the worldwide web is widespread and freedom of search doesn’t exist even in the ‘free’ West. Whether it should is, of course, another matter.

There is also a tendency amongst commentators in the West to unthinkingly assume that Chinese users of the web are the passive victims of state censorship, imbibing government propaganda in a fairly uncritical way. Such a view comes close to the old hypodermic syringe theories of media content, which are seen today as rather naïve and one-dimensional. The more recent body of work under the general rubric of audience studies, making use of interpretative models and theories, has shown that audiences and users are active interpreters, not passive sponges, reading between the lines and adopting a cynical approach to media messages. This is even more the case with new media such as the Internet, which demand active engagement from users. Those using search engines to find specific information become skilled at finding it and don’t give up their information-foraging easily.  

A nice empirical study carried out by James Lull in the late 1990s explored 100 Chinese families’ attitudes and approaches to television, which had been rolled out across the country in the 1980s. He found that, in similar ways to populations in the former communist regimes of Eastern Europe, Chinese audiences knew full well that what they saw and heard was heavily censored and included much propaganda, but they were able to filter and interpret it through their own knowledge of society and wider international relations in order to make sense of it. They were extremely sensitive to how news is presented and how it’s delivered, what’s been left out and which issues are accorded priority. In all likelihood, this kind of active interpretation and critical reception is even more widespread in web searching, Internet use and information retrieval. None of which means that extreme political censorship of the web is not an issue of concern, but it does mean that many of China’s 360 million Internet users are unlikely to be as surprised as Google seems to be at the latest revelations of state surveillance and intervention. 

Chapter 17 on Media is the starting point for debates on Internet use. ICTs and globalization is covered in Chapter 4, pp.127-131. Postmodern theories of society focusing on the impact of media are in Chapter 3, pp.96-8. Chapter 7 on social interaction includes social constructionism and cyberspace (pp.273-6), and US ‘televangelism’ is covered in Chapter 16 on pp.702-6. Technology in schools can be found in Chapter 19, pp.870-7, whilst cybercrimes are discussed in Chapter 21, pp.970-4.