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Searching for Tiananmen Square? – not on you won’t

Searching for Tiananmen Square? – not on you won’t

Posted on 13th August 2018

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China flag on keyboard

I am sure you’ll have seen the news that Google might be thinking about trying to get back into the Chinese market after it departed that country in 2010 due to a dispute over censorship. Now, an insider has revealed that the internet giant is apparently developing a version of its search engine, possibly for introduction initially as an Android app, which would pass muster with the Chinese authorities. Or, to put it more bluntly, a search engine that would block Western media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, that are outlawed in China.  In addition, this search engine would not accept strings seeking information on such topics as “Tiananamen Square massacre” as well as international media such as the BBC and the New York Times.  Anyone in the UK or USA can decide whether to search for and then listen/watch/read the BBC or New York Times.  In China, people won’t have a choice. 

Notably, Google has not denied the report. Which makes me wonder, what would happen if any other country decided to impose such censorship on Google? Would it fall in line?  Say, just to choose an inflammatory example, a bumptious US President wanted to filter out “fake news,” could you imagine Google and Facebook rolling over or would they just give him short shift?  

Interestingly, when I researched this topic, I found that Facebook has already built a tool that would pass the censorship tests required by the Chinese. Not only that, but Facebook has, very recently, come extremely close to getting approval from the Chinese for a subsidiary to operate in their country, but the licence was revoked at the last minute. 

My colleagues and I have written previously about the extent to which China monitors its citizens and of its efforts to do so even more in the future. While I fully understand the commercial imperative that drives the Western internet titans to expand and develop into new territories, there comes a point at which you have to stop and ask if this is the right thing to do. 

Where does freedom to express one’s own thoughts and seek other views begin and end and how much should technology facilitate or restrict this? Clearly, we are having a debate in the West just now over the rise of “fake news,” online abuse, racism and political manipulation of elections by foreign powers and home-based businesses with a vested interest in the results. No-one, other than paedophiles, terrorists and sadists, wants to see the kind of images that are all too often reported as being commonplace in some of the dark (and less dark) areas of the web and social media.  Governments do need to strive to get this balance right. At one extreme there is the Chinese approach, at the other, the western desire for freedom, even if occasionally this means someone gets hurt. 

The interplay between digital media and individual freedom and the extent to which any state has to interfere with the latter will be one of the big issues in the development of the internet over the next few years, and probably beyond. Certainly, technology has a key role to play in rooting out and preventing the dissemination of the hatred and evil that currently find it all too easy to pollute the online world with distorted world views and vile behaviour. 

That said, in my view, like the newspapers that it is replacing, the web’s greatest strength ought to be its ability to allow the maximum freedom of thought, expression and liberty possible under the law and, crucially, to hold our political overlords and other members of the so-called “elite” to account. But where that law is focused, as it is in China, on denying some key elements of individual liberty and covering up wrong-doing (not unknown in the West), we should not collaborate to support state censorship and surveillance simply to make money. 

Gareth Biggerstaff, CEO, Be-IT

Posted in News, Opinion

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