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On Point

The Great Search Engine Collides With the Great Firewall


February 10, 2010

Last month's clash between Google and China was definitely a 21st century tiff, as the Great Search Engine of America's Silicon Valley collided with China's Great Firewall, the still-communist software filter that surrounds the Middle Kingdom's digital terrain.

The Google versus China battle repeated elements of the classic struggle between an "open society" and a "closed society." Google accused the Chinese government of hacking the email accounts of human rights activists and told China that it was "no longer willing to continue censoring" Internet search results for terms like "Tiananmen Square." Yes, the Beijing government gets very touchy when its own citizens inquire about the mass murder that occurred there in 1989.

The Chinese government huffed that it was only practicing "Internet management." Great bureaucratic phrase, that dry, self-justifying jargon for identifying and silencing native Chinese who want the same open access to information their Asian neighbors in Japan, South Korea and (shudder) Taiwan possess.

The U.S. government's response to the clash was aggressively pro-Google. On Jan. 21, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a fascinating speech on Internet freedom. Clinton, commenting on the Google-China contretemps, said that "countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century."

Walling off. Great Wall. Great Firewall. Hey, the pun has diplomatic punch.

Restricting the flow of information is directly analogous to historical restrictions on contacts with foreigners and loosely analogous to restrictions on international trade.

In the past, many nations have closed seaports to foreign ships in an attempt to stop their people from meeting and greeting foreigners. The potentates controlling the ports had their reasons. Foreigners might disrupt the locals with "dangerous" or "contaminating" foreign ideas. The peasants must be protected from "disruptive influences." The next step? Marrying foreigners! The emperor frowns on that.

During their long and extraordinary histories, China and Japan have both "turned inward" and limited contacts with the outside world. They may have protected their cultural identities, but they also fossilized politically, economically and technologically.

China understands that it needs the Internet and the ability for its corporations and creative citizens to communicate globally if it wants to continue to remain economically competitive and to continue to create wealth. The Google War, however, demonstrates a Great Prison Wall mentality still persists among China's communist elites.

Citizens may communicate about economics, yuan, yen and euros. But as for the liberalizing political demands that appear to go hand in hand with increased wealth and the free flow of information? The Great Firewall will remain in place, identifying dissenters and blocking what the regime regards as disruptive ideas.

Digital communications can be a tool for democratic agitation. Beijing has seen what is happening in the streets of Tehran. Iran's Green Movement uses Twitter as a means of evading the information blackout imposed by Iran's theological dictatorship. The Obama administration was inexcusably slow in coming to the aid of Iran's democrats, but with Clinton's statement regarding Google, the U.S. has clearly linked free information on the Internet with human rights, political liberalization and economic development.

Following Clinton's speech, however, China warned that criticizing its Internet policies could damage U.S.-China relations. The threat came (perhaps not so coincidentally) in the midst of a major debate on U.S. debt. China buys a lot of U.S. government bonds. Economic linkage and interdependence, like the Internet and information linkage, is another characteristic of globalization.

Note Google conceded it had restricted some data searches -- the company wants Chinese business. Cash bought some uneasy corporate complicity. With the hacking of its online email, however, Google reached a point where China's shenanigans cost it credibility with a billion other customers. Market democracy? Google can count. Can Beijing?
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