Google and My Red Flag

By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, January 30, 2006

I work in an industry that Google may half-destroy, but last week I sympathized with the gobbler of all ad revenue. Google was beaten up in the media for bowing to censorship in China, even though plenty of news organizations sell their wares in countries where they get censored. Meanwhile, the dilemma of censorship turned personal for me. A Chinese publisher expressed interest in my recent book on the World Bank -- provided that certain passages were deleted.

My first reaction was: Forget it. The test for such dilemmas is whether you'd mind being outed in public. If a media critic lambasted me for kowtowing to communist censors, I reckoned I'd feel lousy.

But my second reaction was different. I set the question of money aside: If I went through with the deal, I'd give the (small) advance to a human rights group. Having established that, what next? Was it better for Western books to circulate in China in censored form, or was it better not to circulate?

This seemed an imponderable question, so naturally I Googled it.

Google's answer to the China dilemma is better, and more subtle, than that of other Internet firms. It does not simply assert that engagement with China is always good. It recognizes the arms race between China's repressive state power and China's liberating economic growth, and it accepts the conclusion that follows: Some forms of engagement hasten liberal trends; others empower jailers.

This is not a distinction acknowledged by all investors in China, nor indeed in the China debate more generally. Policy types argue the merits of engagement vs. containment as though there were nothing in between; either you're for tough talk and sanctions, or you embrace the dragon unequivocally. Both Bill Clinton and George Bush have favored engagement, and both have waxed especially lyrical about the opening of cyberspace. Clinton once laughed that China's efforts to control the Internet were "like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall." "Freedom's genie will be out of the bottle," Bush said of the Internet's arrival in the Middle Kingdom.

This, plainly, is exaggerated. The fact that China had (according to a 2005 count) 4 million blogs is a good sign for Chinese expression, but not necessarily for freedom. China has the largest cyberpolice force in the world, which swoops down on bloggers who speak out against the government. When a democracy activist named Wang Youcai seized the occasion of Clinton's 1998 visit to China to launch an opposition party online, he was promptly arrested and jailed for six years. He "became Clinton's Jell-O, nailed to the wall," as Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu write in their forthcoming book on cyberspace.

But the problem with the Clinton-Bush rhetoric is not just that it's blithe. It helps American companies to pretend that all China engagement is positive. Thus the Internet router firm Cisco had no qualms about building a great cyberwall around China, which blocks Chinese surfers from "subversive" foreign Web sites. Thus Yahoo has obliged the Chinese government by tracing pro-democracy e-mails to one of its users. The e-mailer has been jailed, and Yahoo has effectively become a Chinese police auxiliary.

But Google hasn't done that. It is creating a search service in China, http://www.google.cn/ , but it is not erecting cyberwalls or helping to arrest people. The new Google search service will give Chinese users access to better information than they had before -- a clear gain for freedom. And although the search service will be censored, it's hard to see this as a net loss. The censored material would not have reached China without Google's investment.

And that's not the best bit. Google has negotiated the right to disclose, at the bottom of its Chinese search results, whether information has been withheld -- a disclosure that may prompt users to repeat their search using google.com instead of google.cn. Of course, the second search might be frustrated by Cisco's routers. But disclosing censorship is half the battle. If people know they are being brainwashed, then they are not being brainwashed.

Which brings me back to my dilemma. The simple pro-engagement stance would be to go ahead: Better that Western books reach China in compromised form than that they be shut out altogether. But if the censors remove my references to China's "prison labor," "dictatorial system" and so on, a Chinese reader will find only my admiring comments about the country's poverty-reducing growth -- and assume that this is the sum total of what foreigners see in their country. That is where the brainwashing begins, and I want no part of it.

And so, thanks to Google, I have come up with my answer. I'll accept the Chinese offer on three conditions: The translation should include a note warning the reader that it's been censored; the note should say which chapter has been changed; I'll give the proceeds to a human rights group. It feels good to have resolved that, but I don't really expect this deal to go through. The Chinese offer may mysteriously vanish now that I've written this column.

mallabys@washpost.com


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