China vs. Germany: Comparing Google’s Censorship Practices

Part of Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s justification for being complicit with China’s censorship of search engine results is that Google does the same thing in Germany and France, so what’s the big deal with time around. Consider this recent statement:

Asked whether Google might try to persuade Beijing to change its restrictions, Schmidt said he didn’t rule anything out, but said it hasn’t tried to change such limits elsewhere. He noted that Google’s site in Germany is barred from linking to Nazi-oriented material.

“There are many cases where certain information is not available due to local law or local custom,” he said.

I’ve been meaning to write a response to this flawed argument, pointing out that while Germany’s attempt to restrict access to hate-speech and other Nazi-related information does constitute censorship, it is mean to prevent the return of a dark moment in the nation’s history. (Note, I don’t agree with this German policy.) Meanwhile, China wants to block access to information that might give its citizens glimpses of democracy and freedom – its censorship is meant to protect the monopolization of power by the state. Both forms of censorship are “evil,” but if we were to make comparisons, the Chinese version is perhaps a greater violation of a citizen’s rights than the German form.

Philipp Lenssen, the German owner of the blog Google Blogoscoped, provides a much more articulate description of this distinction:

I think it’s a fuzzy issue. Censoring nazi sites is a little less evil than censoring human rights sites, and censoring human right sites is a little less evil than handing over email account information, and handing over email account information is a little less evil than jailing the dissident yourself. However, they’re all acts of the same line of thought, and often set precedents for each other, and I oppose all of them.
Don’t burn books even if you think you burn the right books. And digital censorship is modern book burning. Google in Germany is “only” censoring the results to these sites, not the sites itself, but that’s like saying they’re only securing the area while someone else burns the books.

Often, these acts of cooperating with the gov’t ruin more trust than any number like “only 2 dissidents” or “only 5% of searches” could express. If I know Yahoo Mail is cooperating with the Chinese gov’t, I can’t use it to voice my human rights concern over the Chinese gov’t anymore, period – and that affects all mails. If I know some of the Yahoo search results are censored, I have reason to mistrust *any* Yahoo search results (and also be careful about what I’m searching for). If only 1 person is in jail for unjustified reasons, then everyone must be afraid to live and work in China and confront the Chinese gov’t (or use western online tools whose leaders cooperate with the Chinese gov’t). If I know that *some* morals don’t need to be respected *some* of the time by *some* people… what keeps me from disrespecting all kinds of moral rules? That’s the broken window phenomenon.

Google, Yahoo and others, by exposing their line of thought, also show us that they could do basically anything. E.g. their line of thought allows them to cooperate with Nazis. Their line of thought allows an image search to stop showing black people just because a segregationist gov’t would ask them to (“we follow local laws” … “we think showing at least some images helps spread the information better”). In the end it’s always the same: such “evil” gov’ts need people to build their tools. The Nazis relied on IBM for parts of their work. If Einstein would have just followed local laws, instead of making sure he’s preventing the Nazis from getting his technological inventions by going to the US, then this might be a different world today.

Now I don’t believe Google is that bad – I just believe their arguments are logically flawed, and pretty much useless. But they might have become deaf to outside criticism… they’ve survived every kind of criticism so far (copyright issues with Google Books, Google News China omitting several sources, Gmail “privacy invasion” through ads, the acquisition of the Deja News usenet archive). But the results seem to prove them right, pragmatically speaking; everyone is still using Google, no law so far is making their decisions illegal, and news coverage of their China move dies down over time. As we can see, Eric Schmidt is now getting more and more self-assured over the decision.

[via Don’t Be Evil]


  1. Good find.

    You might enjoy a comment I posted to the thread in response:

    As a long-time free-speech activist, I’d like to point out I’ve seldom seen such a pure example of the slippery-slope argument being demonstrated.

    Usually, slippery-slope arguments run “If we start censoring Nazi sites, then we’ll end up censoring human-rights sites”. And someone is sure to say “No, we can make a distinction, it won’t happen” (sometimes in an aggressive way – “if you can’t tell the difference, you are morally obtuse”)

    Mr Schmidt has graced us with a form of that argument so perfect one would think it fiction if we didn’t know it was in fact real – “Because we have censored Nazi sites (in Germany) (there is no moral difference in), we then censor human rights sites in China”

  2. >Mr Schmidt has graced us with a form of that argument so perfect one would
    >think it fiction if we didn’t know it was in fact real – “Because we have censored
    >Nazi sites (in Germany) (there is no moral difference in), we then censor human
    >rights sites in China”

    Agreed – it is uncanny that he (or his PR folks) don’t see the fallacy in this logic.

  3. Pingback: Privacy Digest: Privacy News (Civil Rights, Encryption, Free Speech, Cryptography)

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