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Not too evil

January 26, 2006

GOOGLE'S NEW FORAY INTO China is testing just how intimately a company can dance with a repressive regime and not be considered "evil." The Internet search giant, whose slogan is "Don't be evil," made two concessions to Chinese authorities in an effort to attract more of the country's 100-million-plus Internet users.

For starters, it agreed to block searches related to an undisclosed number of topics that trouble Beijing autocrats, including "Tiananmen Square" and "democracy." It also decided not to offer access to its e-mail or blog-writing services. In exchange, it gained an Internet address inside China's firewall that can deliver search results faster to Chinese users.

Not surprisingly, some technology advocates and other critics were outraged by the move. They accused Google of putting advertising sales ahead of the Internet's core values, particularly the free flow of information. They also noted how the company's cooperation with China contrasts with its recent resistance to the U.S. Justice Department, which sought data about Google searches to help defend a law regulating online porn. To these critics, Google would be better off keeping its servers outside of China than acting as a censor for the Chinese government.

Those are real concerns, but they overlook one of the ugly realities facing Internet users in China. Even if Google's servers were on the moon, searches for "Tiananmen Square" would run into trouble with the Chinese government's comprehensive firewall. It may be unseemly for Google to comply with China's demands, but at least it tells people when search results are being excluded -- a small but valuable reminder to the public about government suppression.

Granted, Google seems to be more interested in avoiding conflict than in promoting the welfare of Chinese citizens. For example, by not making its e-mail or blogging tools available inside China, Google avoids being asked by Chinese authorities to disclose the identities of those who offend Beijing with their posts. That's what happened to Yahoo, which revealed the identity of an anonymous e-mailer, only to see him sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Nevertheless, the deal that Google struck should help Chinese Internet users in the long run by giving them another window -- albeit an occluded one -- to the outside world. Information, like light, tends to seep through the tiniest of cracks. By making it easy for Chinese Web surfers to reach its search engine, Google has made it that much harder for the Chinese government to keep the world under wraps.

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