Google and the China Syndrome

Here is my letter to Newsweek on the subject of Google censorship in China.

[Note from 2017: Google eventually gave up and pulled out of China rather than be censored and constrained. But American companies continue to work around restrictions and sell censorship tools to oppressive regimes.]


The question of whether to work within an oppressive regime, or hope that a boycott will force change, is always a hard one; and I’m not going to judge Google on their decision.  Keep in mind that such censorship requests don’t just come from China–even France and Germany wish to censor external web sites.  Nonetheless, there is no question in my mind that Yahoo overstepped the bounds when they turned over identifying information on a blogger.

However, in all this fuss we are missing an even more important example of censorship complicity by American companies.  At the same time that the United States is encouraging the people of countries like Iran to exercise their right to disagree with their government, American technology is being used to prevent freedom of speech in those countries. Iran, and other countries in the Middle East, use software from companies like Secure Computing to block their citizens from accessing everything from Iranian bloggers to the BBC Persian News Service.  While Secure Computing denies having sold the software to Iran, there is no question that they didn’t provide sufficient safeguards to prevent the dissemination of the software to such countries.  In a age when word processors get shipped with restrictions which require them to validate their license with a remote server, it seems to me that software which can be used to limit the liberties of people around the world should be locked down quite a bit tighter.  At least Google has the excuse that they are expanding access to some information.  This software is designed solely to provide censorship. It is a weapon against freedom of speech, and it should be regulated like any other weapon.

For more details on the use of American censorship software in other countries, see the OpenNet Initiative at http://www.opennetinitiative.net/.

“Iran’s Internet filtering system is one of the world’s most substantial censorship regimes. Iran has adopted this extensive filtering regime at a time of extraordinary growth in Internet usage among its citizens, as well as a tremendous increase in the number of its citizens who write online in Farsi…. The Internet has become an important information resource in Iran. Polls show that people trust the Internet more than any other media outlet, including domestic television and radio broadcasts. Beginning in 2000, Iranians began to create internal news sites to circumvent the state’s controls over traditional media sources. Blogs, both Iranian and from elsewhere, are increasingly popular, and Iranian servers host thousands of blogs.” – http://www.opennetinitiative.net/studies/iran/

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