China's Google Syndrome

05/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Online giant's retreat puts spotlight on Internet freedoms

What an amazing week. It started with Google on Monday deciding to reroute its Chinese users to its unfiltered Hong Kong-based search engine. But it didn't end there. What Chinese authorities hoped would be a blip that would neatly be resolved instead has ballooned into a much bigger drama. Google's decision - the shot heard 'round the world - threw a spotlight on other online Western companies operating in The People's Republic of China under authorities' tight controls. By Wednesday, GoDaddy stopped registering domain names with Chinese servers and it remains to be seen if other companies follow Google's lead.

Beijing has been quick to react, first accusing Google of acting politically and now blocking search results from its Hong Kong-based search engines. Chinese partners already are backing out of previous deals with Google. The retreat also has offered a peek inside the regime's information control apparatus during times of crisis. Chinese domestic news Web site editors were handed a set of instructions on reporting on the incident, explaining that all content about Google must originate from the central government's main media Web site without any changes, including to the wording of the articles' titles. According to the rules, discussion sessions on any media blogs are forbidden, as is content from any outside or foreign news source.

The events also throw a spotlight on China's draconian restrictions of the Internet and its use of the far-reaching medium to enforce its perpetual prohibition of free speech and the unfettered exchange of ideas.

With about 350 million Chinese people online, China has the most Internet users of any country. But China also maintains the world's most comprehensive online censorship program. Service providers operating in China filter searches, block Web sites, delete objectionable content, and monitor e-mail traffic. Despite pledges for more openness since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, China's controls of online freedom have only become tighter. To access Web sites, such as Radio Free Asia's, China's netizens are forced to use proxy servers and special software to navigate Chinese-restricted cyberspace. Last year, in the weeks leading up to the 20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square crackdown, Google's and Yahoo!'s search engines were filtered and online social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook were shut down. Since last summer's ethnic unrest in Urumqi, bloggers have described the ongoing cyber blackout of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as an "Internet prison."

Chinese authorities also go after bloggers when they refuse to walk the party line or post information deemed sensitive. Chinese blogger Huang Qi is serving a prison sentence of three years since being convicted last November for his role in helping the victims' families of the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May 2008. At present, an estimated 73 netizens and bloggers in China are behind bars.

The deep irony is how authorities use the Internet -- with its enormous potential to promote discussion and the free exchange of ideas -- as a means to silence and intimidate. It seems hardly imaginable that the Internet could be used as a tool of suppression. But so successful is China's model that other authoritarian governments strive to emulate it.

Google's move brings attention to this reality. China's incredible growth over the last several decades as a global economic powerhouse has made it easier to overlook its sluggish progress in improving free speech and media freedoms. In refusing to back down, China risks making the very subject of cyberspace a "special topic" that is conspicuously avoided like Tibet and Taiwan.

But who would have known that Google would have led the charge to bring these events about? Least of all, would anyone expect that a commercial company that risks losing out on a vast market would put human rights ahead of profits. That is, until now.

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