Vernuccio’s View: Google, China, and Censorship

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It’s odd that you don’t see much anger expressed online about how social media giants have helped dictatorships.  Is that because those comments have been intentionally censored?

An Intercept article by Ryan Gallagher recently reported that “Google is planning to launch a censored version of its search engine in China that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest… The project – code-named Dragonfly – has been underway since spring of last year, and accelerated following a December 2017 meeting between Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and a top Chinese government official…Teams of programmers and engineers at Google have created a custom Android app, different versions of which have been named ‘Maotai’ and ‘Longfei.’ The app has already been demonstrated to the Chinese government; the finalized version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending approval from Chinese officials.”

China’s prodigious use of censorship has long been a concern.  In 2006, the State Department’s senior adviser on East Asian affairs,  James R. Keith, testified  before the House international Relational Committee that Beijing retains “thousands of government monitors – perhaps as many as 25-30,000 by one estimate – and the involvement of more than 20 ministries and government organs”  to manage the internet.

It’s not only free speech within China that is being affected. Google may be influenced by the prospect of huge financial gain within the world’s most populous nation to paint a rosy picture of the Beijing regime throughout the world.

That would fit in well with China’s efforts. China’s leadership is not content to merely eliminate free speech and political dissent within its own borders. The New York Times reported earlier this year that “Within its digital borders, China has long censored what its people read and say online. Now, it is increasingly going beyond its own online realms to police what people and companies are saying about it all over the world.”

Google is well aware of Beijing’s malicious use of the internet for the purposes of political repression. In 2010, the internet giant released a statement on an attack by China that affected not only Google as a corporation but the privacy and security of those who use its services.…we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists…we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties.”

Some believe that, like a magic elixir, expanding internet usage in China will promote greater freedom of information.  That has not proven to be the case in other nations. A Foreign Policy analysis reported that “…, what is sometimes known as “liberation technology” is not, in fact, making pro-democracy movements more effective…nonviolent resistance has actually become less successful compared to earlier, pre-internet times. Whereas nearly 70 percent of civil resistance campaigns succeeded during the 1990s, only 30 percent have succeeded since 2010…governments are simply better at manipulating social media than activists. Despite early promises of anonymity online, commercial and government surveillance has made internet privacy a thing of the past. The Russian government, for example, has successfully infiltrated activists’ communications to anticipate and crush even the smallest protests.”

Google’s new relationship with Beijing comes at a time when China has become even more repressive. Freedom House’s 2018 rankings notes that “China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. … Internet censorship and surveillance reached new heights as a Cybersecurity Law came into effect in June…The authorities’ crackdown on civil society continued, with arrests and criminal prosecutions of bloggers…”

Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy & Government

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