Google vs. China = economic censorship vs. state-censorship of the Internet

On March 22, 2010, Google stopped censoring searches on Google China and redirected google.cn to goole.hk because it can operate without censorship in Hong Kong. Within minutes, the Chinese government made use of the ”Great Firewall of China“ to block Chinese users’ access to Google China from within mainland China. So although Google’s idea was that if Chinese users type “Tiananmen Square” into Google, they will be able to see images of people killed in the 1989 events, persons within China will not be able to do so. It is most likely that these events will bring the end of Google in China.

Many Western media celebrated Google’s end of censorship in China is a courageous political move for the defence and establishment of human rights and free speech. If a society wants to be superior to Western societies, then censoring information and thereby blocking the access of citizens to certain news or type of news does never make sense, because a really superior system convinces people by the superior living conditions it creates for its citizens and therefore is not in need of state censorship of the Internet. Google’s retreat from China can be explained as being a PR action that aims at restoring the company’s public image of “doing no evil” after it has recently come under heavy attack as threatening Internet user’s privacy, engaging in and enabling surveillance (e.g. Google Buzz, Goggles), and having created an economic monopoly in the search engine market. Google’s activities in China do not amount to more than 2 percent of its total revenue. Baidu controls 60% of the Chinese search engine market, Google only controlled 30%. Therefore this public image campaign is relatively cheap for Google and it is likely that its image gains will, translated into money profit, offset the losses Google is suffering by its retreat from the Chinese market.

I oppose state-censorship of the Internet, but I do not think that the Internet is uncensored in Western countries and that the state of the Internet in the West is anything that can be celebrated or upheld as role model. Google’s search engine is the best example of how the Internet is being economically censored by large Internet corporations. In most Western countries, other than in China, you are free to say most things you want to say, to publish them on a blog, a discussion forum, or other spaces on the Internet. But nonetheless this political freedom of Internet speech is a form of economic unfreedom. Why? Although you can easily express your opinion on the Internet, it is unlikely that the normal citizen’s view will be heard by millions on the Internet and that it will have large effects in society and the political system because big players control online attention.

Sure, there are exceptions, where everyday Internet users become known throughout the world. But this is not because they are voicing brilliant or especially critical political ideas, but because they are doing spectacular or unconventional things, such as parents claiming that their son has floated away in a balloon, performing an especially funny dance, baby Charly biting his brother’s finger, etc. But overall, big economic and political actors control attention on the Internet. If you are a representative of a large corporation or a powerful party, then it is likely that your power is not only economic and/or political in character, but also cultural, i.e. that you have a reputation that allows you to reach many people when you communicate information on the Internet. It is communication with effects, whereas many Internet communications by normal citizens remain without effects. The capitalist attention economy, which is dominated by corporate and political actors, censors citizens’ voices. No violence and no coercive laws are needed for doing this. You can say everything you want on the Western Internet, but in most cases what you say will remain marginal. The violence of the censorship exerted by the Internet attention economy is that it censors without having to cut off communication channels, without using firewalls, and without imprisoning citizens, but by making use of the tendency of monopolization that is inherent in all markets and therefore also affects the online information and attention markets. The tolerance of “saying everything you want on the Internet”, is a dubious, repressive form of tolerance – repressive Internet tolerance. Saying something without being able to be heard is not a complete process of communication, it is a censored form of communication.

If you look for simple search words such as “news” or “politics” on Google, then you will see sites such as Newsweek, MSNBC, New York Times, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, or ABC News as the top results – i.e. the sites of big media players. This displays exactly how repressive Internet tolerance works and how it is supported and enabled by Google’s anonymous page rank algorithm.

Neither China nor Google are the ambassadors of freedom of speech, they are just representatives of two different models of Internet censorship: Internet censorship by state coercion and economic Internet censorship by repressive tolerance and economic monopolies. Although China and Google are now going separate ways, they have more in common than they think…

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4 Responses to “Google vs. China = economic censorship vs. state-censorship of the Internet”


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  • Comment from Radu Ticiu

    Generally speaking, the ideas expressed here are valid. It is definitely hard to be “relevant” on Internet on a global scale, at least as an individual.

    On other hand, thanks to the geographic web you can be highly relevant as an individual on a smaller geographical scope (from neighborhood to city scale) or thanks to blogs, groups, twitter following patterns within micro-communities of like-minded people.

    Again, positively, there are channels that are linking this geographic and thematic communities with the global Internet, most of them represented by the media operators (printed, audio, video) that are often “scrapping” the niches in order to extract and disseminate information initially not-dedicated to the global audience.

    What we will probably face in the next period is a more intentional information push from this “minor Internet loci” to the global Internet level. We’ll see an alternative to the SEO, in the form of injections of content and propagation patern characteristics in order to boost information from the deep, anonymous internet layers towards the surface, large audience layers.

    My opinion is that we’ll soon see new ways of informal, very fluid temporary associations of individuals or groups that will work together in order to add global relevance to information sourced locally or collaterally to the mainstream channels.

  • Comment from CW

    The story has a more up-to-date development.
    Google entered China market again after the “search engine debate”. It was considered a white-flag action to a very large market.
    Recently, google claimed that China government has interrupted gmail service for political reasons.
    I am looking forward to your insight and your prediction on such development.

    Thanks,
    CW