Google vs. China, round 2

"Netizens of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your governments, service providers and illusions. Google versus China is a defining story of our time. Like lion confronting crocodile, the global soft power..."

Timothy Garton Ash

Contributing to this clash are the biggest revolution in information technology since Johannes Gutenberg invented the moveable-type printing press in the 15th century and the biggest global power shift since the geopolitical rise of the West, which some historians also trace back to the 15th century. Be sure of one thing: there will be no clear winner any time soon.

Following Google's decision to abandon censorship and relocate its Chinese-language search engine to Hong Kong, fact-seeking Chinese internet users may be slightly worse off at first. Although these are early days, it seems that rather more politically sensitive search items may be blocked by the filters of the great firewall, if you access the now Hong Kong-based site from the rest of mainland China, than were excluded by the censorship to which Google was party for just over four years, while it ran under Chinese regulations. If the Chinese authorities were to escalate this row to the point of blocking access to the whole site, Chinese netizens would lose more - but perhaps only in the short term.

For the huge publicity created by this argument must have alerted more of China's nearly 400 million internet users to the to the way in which their searches are being distorted as a result of the country's characteristic mix of direct censorship by the party-state and self-censorship by on-line information providers working inside the firewall. Take a look at the comparison in Wednesday's Guardian of search results for items such as 'Dalai Lama', 'Falun Gong' and 'Liu Xiaobo' (the imprisoned dissident) on the leading Chinese-language search engines, including the heavily self-censored On the censored sites, you simply don't know what you don't know. What you do find is likely to be partial or untrue.

It matters a lot that people realise how distorted is the information reaching them through a medium that looks free. Rebecca MacKinnon, a leading writer on the internet in China, puts it like this: 'if you're born with tunnel vision you assume it's normal until somehow you're made aware that life without tunnel vision is both possible and much better. The longer this story remains in the headlines, the more people will become conscious of their tunnel vision and think about ways to eliminate it.'

There are two optimistic assumptions in what she says. One is that people mind having their national and political prejudices confirmed by biassed media. We hear the complaints of a brave and vocal minority of Chinese netizens, but what if many Chinese internet-users are happy to have patriotic, puritan and ideological filters put on the information they receive? What if they are the Chinese equivalent of Fox News groupies? For what America's Fox News groupies say, in effect, is: 'Tunnel vision? Yes, please! Unfair and unbalanced? We love it that way!' If anything, BBC-style impartiality is rather losing out to multiple partialities in media across much of the democratic world. The crucial contrast to China is, of course, that Americans have a choice. They can switch to CNN at the click of a button. Most Chinese can't. We - and they themselves - can only know what they would choose if and when they have the choice.

MacKinnon's other optimistic assumption is that it 'is...possible' for them to escape that tunnel vision and win that choice. Very often, especially in America, such optimism is justified by reference to progress in technology; but there is nothing automatic about the liberating effect of information technologies in authoritarian regimes. Yes, bloggers and dissidents from Tehran to Beijing celebrate the opportunities these open up. But authoritarian regimes from Russia to China have so far been quite effective in controlling the internet - and even using it against their critics. A few years ago, the Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo wrote movingly about the opportunities that the internet offered him. Today, Liu Xiaobo is in prison. Round Two to the old-fashioned power of the territorial state.

However, this comes at a high cost to that state, and the next wave of information and communication technologies, including those that circumvent firewalls, will increase still further the cost of keeping control. So there is, as it were, a digital arms race.

In this great game of the early 21st century, we see three major kinds of player: states, companies and netizens. It's not just authoritarian states that have problems with the free flow of information; so do democratic ones.

Companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft themselves have big questions to answer about the way they select, handle and sell the vast information resources at their disposal. I can't help wondering where Google would be today on the China issue if one of its founders, Sergey Brin, had not been shaped by his family's experience in the Soviet Union. And Microsoft might be in a morally better place if Bill Gates had grown up in, say, Poland.

Meanwhile, netizens everywhere have multiple identities: we are individuals, citizens and residents of a particular state (or two), users of particular platforms and products. We are also human beings with unprecedented possibilities of communicating directly with other human beings, and hence of developing the ethos, if not the legal reality, of being 'citizens of the world'.

In thinking about the way information is supplied to us, we have, it seems to me, four possible approaches: (1) The state I live in decides what I can and cannot see, and that's OK. (2) The big companies I rely on (Google, Yahoo, Baidu, Microsoft, Apple, China Mobile etc) get to select what I see, and that's OK. (3) I want to be free to see anything I like. Uncensored news from everywhere, all of world literature, manifestoes of every party and movement, jihadist propaganda, bomb-making instructions, intimate details of other people's private lives, child pornography - all should be freely available. Then it's up to me to decide what I'll look at. (The radical libertarian option.) (4) Everyone should be free to see everything, except for that limited set of things that clear, explicit global rules specify should not be available. The job of states, companies and netizens is then to enforce those international norms.

At the moment, we have a combination of (1) and (2). Developments in technology will give us more of (3), whether we like it or not. (4) currently looks like a pipe dream. Nonetheless, it is to (4) that we should aspire. It's in the infosphere that the world is coming closest, fastest, to a global village, so it's the infosphere that most urgently needs a global debate about the village rules. If we don't have that debate, and have it soon, then what you get to see on your screen will be the result of a power struggle between the old-fashioned power of the state in which you happen to be, the new-style power of the giant information companies, the insurgent force of novel information technologies and the ingenuity of individual netizens. That's a likely outcome, but not the best.

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