Google Censorship FAQ

Philipp Lenssen at Google Blogoscoped has published an unofficial Google Censorship FAQ where he answers over 35 questions related to Google’s censorship activities. Highlights include:

What does Google censor?
It depends on the country. In Germany, Google censors certain Nazi websites like Stormfront.org, for example. In the US, Google censors sites containing child pornography, Google’s Sergey Brin stated. In China, Google also censors human rights groups, like HRW.org (Human Rights Watch), but many other things as well, like “台独” (Taiwan independence), names of current and past presidents, names of locations, historical events and so on. Due to the broad scope of Google China censorship, the list of queries hitting on censored results is huge, and often unrelated to sensitive issues (except that the censored sites appear in the results).

Does Google disclose the censorship?
Google prints a disclaimer at the end of search results in most cases, though this wasn’t always the case before early 2006. The disclaimer may read “In response to a legal request submitted to Google, we have removed N result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read more about the request at ChillingEffects.org,” or “In response to a legal complaint we received, we have removed one or more messages. If you wish, you may read the legal complaint,” or (a translation from Chinese) “In compliance with local laws and policies, some search results are not showing.”

Is Google’s disclosure easily visible?
Google decided to put the censorship disclosure at the end of search results (not at the top), a place where many, but not all people, will see it (some people just look at the top results). But clearly if you look out for you can easily find it.

Is Google transparent about their censorship?
Google discloses what they censor when you hit on a specific search result (they didn’t always do this, but they regularly do since 2006). However, Google Inc does not respond to questions regarding how specifically they censor, how the process of censorship is implemented, which blacklists they use, which words are censored, which specific discussions they have with governments, and so on. Google also ignores issues of censorship in their official Chinese blog (according to Human Rights Watch), and in the censorship defense statement made in their official English blog, they do not mention the word “censorship” at all.

Is search results censorship evil?
Whether or not results censoring is evil depends on who you ask. The two basic opposing opinions are:

  1. censoring may not be great but it’s the lesser of two evils
  2. censoring is evil so needs to be avoided at all circumstances

The proponents of censorship in the Chinese government for example may argue along the lines of 1), that censorship isn’t great but that free speech would lead to greater problems for such a large country where order needs to be provided. Google Inc also argues along the lines of 1), saying that censorship isn’t great but that not getting deeply involved in such a large country as a company leads to even greater problems in the long run. Others argue that 2), a principled approach – allow no evil at all – makes more sense in the long run. Sergey Brin once told CNN that he thinks “both kinds of viewpoints are perfectly valid.”

Is Google China censorship compliant with Google’s informal corporate motto, “don’t be evil”?
I’d argue no, because in order to enter China Google introduced a new philosophy of balancing evil scales. So the most optimistic interpretation is that they now accept smaller evils for a greater good – a more pessimistic interpretation is that this won’t even result in a greater good. However, neither of the two interpretations conforms to a strict “don’t be evil.”

How did human rights or freedom of speech organizations judge Google’s censorship in China?
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) demands: “If U.S. companies find that oppressive governments block or impede their Internet services, they should not simply give in to the threat.”

The Human Rights Watch boss Ken Roth told CNN: “Google’s in the vanguard in the United States, and it’s compromising along with the rest of them in China. I’m surprised. I would have expected better from Google.”

Amnesty International says: “’The argument that the companies are ’bringing the internet to China’ is spurious: the internet has been in China for ten years. These companies are simply trying to get a slice of a vast and growing market. And it’s at a great cost: their activities are aiding and abetting government censorship rather than challenging it.”

Reporters Without Borders argued: “US firms are now bending to the same censorship rules as their Chinese competitors but they continue to justify themselves by saying their presence has a long-term benefit. Yet the Internet in China is becoming more and more isolated from the outside world and freedom of expression there is shrinking. These firms’ lofty predictions about the future of a free and limitless Internet conveniently hide their unacceptable moral errors.”

There’s much more

And stay tuned (hopefully) for news about an exciting collaborative project I’ve involved in regarding Internet censorship and web search engines…

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