China, Internet Behavior, and Censorship

    January 27, 2006

Attending a press conference for the Canadian Internet Project – a partner of the World Internet Project – a couple of months ago, I was struck by some of the survey data on citizen attitudes and orientations towards Internet use around the world.

One area that stood out was the political. I would have thought that it went without saying that the presence of the Internet offers a valuable resource with which to share political points of view, criticize the government, and more. But stunningly, a jaded public in North America doesn’t seem to believe that the Internet helps them as citizens, or “provides more opportunity to criticize the government.” Really? The lowest number of all was in Sweden. Probably, it’s no coincidence that in societies that are highly literate and comfortable with free speech, citizens believe they don’t get anything “extra” out of the Internet that they wouldn’t already have through other means. I’d call that naive, but that’s the type of response you get, I guess, when freedom is taken for granted, and when great access to the Internet has been available to everyone. The Internet now seems a bit like electricity — shrug, so what?

Well, it’s a big deal in some places. The China Internet Project is part of the world consortium, and on the question “does the Internet offer more opportunities to criticize the government,” the response was in the affirmative — the highest in the world. (Source: published research by the WIP. There is much data on all aspects of global Internet behavior and attitudes.)

That left me shaking my head. First of all, because the professors in charge of the world study made little fuss about the China vs. the free world anomaly. And the questions after the press conference steered well away from the Internet as a basic tool for communication and political speech, and over to e-commerce details.

I wanted to know: how did they get Chinese citizens to speak candidly about the ‘net? Was the survey result just people saying what they thought the government wanted to hear, that everything is OK in China? Or did this admission — that people find the Internet to be a revolutionary tool for free speech and political activity — trigger a government backlash against Internet cafes and unauthorized sites?

So from these unanswered questions, I turn to the fact that Google’s allowed their results to be censored by the Chinese government. Let’s assume for a moment that profit is not the primary motivating concern for Google sticking it out in China. Google had a big decision to make, because three outcomes are possible: (1) Full uncensored Google; (2) No Google at all, the gradual closure of Internet cafes and spying on citizen use of the Internet, etc.; or (3) something in between.

I don’t pretend to have all the details of Chinese human rights ebbs and flows, and Internet related policies over the last decade, under my belt. But what I’m going to argue is that the question really is a complex one as to how to best effect political change. It would be nice to believe it’s as black & white as we think it is, except that we too live in a society that’s imperfect; one that compromised political freedoms sometimes. We don’t ask our companies to pull out of this society. We have to live and operate somewhere.

The fact is, with a minor degree of censorship, the government might start to permit the rapid growth of relatively free citizen use of the Internet in China. Block access to a few sites, but allow widespread use of email, millions of other sites, and various kinds of interactive applications? That’s a lot of freedom and information flowing, resources that could be used to overturn the current state of relative repression.

You walk away completely, to make a point, and maybe the government sees less of your shining example of democratic political values in its midst, and responds by severely restricting net access.

In a place where (the highest proportion in the world) of the people believe that the Internet offers more opportunities to criticize the government, maybe it’s worth asking those people: “Even with the following list of sites blocked, do you have more opportunities to learn, to communicate, and to advocate a political point of view using Google and similar tools as they are increasingly made available?”

Maybe eventually Google does need to pull out completely, to make a point. But I have trouble believing this one’s only about money. Maybe it’s about naively attempting to wield influence so that the government relents and loosens restrictions. I believe Google should set a time limit on the effort. If things actually worsen in terms of censorship and repression as a result of Google’s compromise, within a year, say, they should pull out.

And to my fellow lazy citizens of Western democracies who don’t believe that the Internet is a powerful tool that offers you a voice and a resource to support and build political movements (not just scrapbooking clubs), what are you thinking? This freedom was hard-won. Exercise it, or at least recognize a good thing when you have it.

Andrew Goodman is Principal of Page Zero Media, a marketing consultancy which focuses on maximizing clients’ paid search marketing campaigns.

In 1999 Andrew co-founded, an acclaimed “guide to portals” which foresaw the rise of trends such as paid search and semantic analysis.