Thursday, January 26, 2006

INTERNET CENSORSHIP

Yesterday came the news that Google was to cave in to pressure from the Chinese government by censoring search results obtained via its Google.cn site. Subjects deemed unpalatable for Chinese eyes include material on human rights, Taiwan, Tibet, democracy, the Dalai Lama and anything else deemed too risque by the current regime.
Within minutes of the launch of the new site bearing China's Web suffix ''.cn," searches for the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement showed scores of sites omitted and users directed to articles condemning the group posted on Chinese government websites.
A strange move given Google's principled stand against the US Justice Department's demand that they hand over more than a billion queries to highlight the inadequacies of current content-filtering technology.

After all, the preface to their Code of Conduct states:
Our informal corporate motto is "Don't be evil."

We Googlers generally relate those words to the way we serve our users – as well we should. But being "a different kind of company" means more than the products we make and the business we're building; it means making sure that our core values inform our conduct in all aspects of our lives as Google employees.

The Google Code of Conduct is the code by which we put those values into practice. This document is meant for public consumption, but its most important audience is within our own walls. This code isn't merely a set of rules for specific circumstances but an intentionally expansive statement of principles meant to inform all our actions; we expect all our employees, temporary workers, consultants, contractors, officers and directors to study these principles and do their best to apply them to any and all circumstances which may arise.

The core message is simple: Being Googlers means striving toward the highest possible standard of ethical business conduct. This is a matter as much practical as ethical; we hire great people who work hard to build great products, but our most important asset by far is our reputation as a company that warrants our users' faith and trust. That trust is the foundation upon which our success and prosperity rests, and it must be re-earned every day, in every way, by every one of us.

So please do read this code, and then read it again, and remember that as our company evolves, The Google Code of Conduct will evolve as well. Our core principles won't change, but the specifics might, so a year from now, please read it a third time. And always bear in mind that each of us has a personal responsibility to do everything we can to incorporate these principles into our work, and our lives.
Is this an example of "the highest possible standard of ethical business conduct"? Does blocking sites that might undermine China's regime square with their motto "Don't Be Evil"? I don't think so.

It should be noted that Google are not alone in making shady deals with the Chinese government. Both Yahoo! and MSN already censor search results via their Chinese sites, Yahoo! even going so far as to hand over the name of a dissident responsible for sending "embarrassing e-mails" to the Chinese authorities. Their excuse? Conforming to the laws of the country in which they operate.

Comforting words no doubt for Shi Tao, the emailer in question, who is currently doing 10 years hard labour for his opinions. As Reporters Without Borders put it:
It is one thing to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government’s abuses and it is quite another thing to collaborate.
Elsewhere, without any help from dubious search engines, the Iranian authorities have just blocked the BBC Persian website. According to Iran Press Service:
When entering the BBC's Persian site, a message in Persian comes up saying "access to this site denied".

...

According to BBC sources, the Broadcasting Persian language site is the most popular of the BBC's non-English language websites, receiving about 30 million page impressions a month - about half of which are from inside Iran.

...

It is not clear if the filtering will be permanent, but many websites are routinely blocked in Iran.

Asked by the BBC’s correspondent in Tehran about the move, Mr. Mas’oud Fateh, a deputy to the Press Department of the Communication and Communication Technologies Ministry said the BBC Persian-language site had been blocked on order from the Committee for Defining the Filtering, a “chameleon” body created on decision from the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, which is chaired by President Ahmadi Nezhad with the task of finding and blocking all internet sites with materials not pleasing the Iranian authorities.

Made of representatives of the Intelligence, Islamic Guidance and Culture ministries and the Radio and Television, the Committee singles out all sites containing items considered as “anti-Islamic, anti-Iranian, insulting Islam, making propaganda for illegal organizations and parties etc..” and urges Internet Providers Services to remove the faulty sites, without ever providing explanation on its decisions.
It's not just the ISP's who feel the wrath of "The Committee". IranPressNews reports (translation here, courtesy of Regime Change Iran):
ILNA, the regime-run news agency reported that a court in the Province of Gilan, in the second round of hearings sentenced journalist and blogger, Arash Cigarchi to 3 years in prison for insulting Khamnei, the supreme leader. Last February, branch 3 of the revolutionary court of Gilan sentenced Cigarchi who was the editor of Gilan Emrooz (Gilan Today) Newspaper, to 14 years in prison. He was charged with "cooperating with the terrorist government of America" because he had given an interview to Radio Farda (The Persian Broadcast of Radio Free Europe); his other charges were "insulting the leadership", "stirring public opinion against national security and publicity against the Islamic Republic of Iran’s rule". After serving 60 days, Cigarchi accompanied by his attorneys appeared at the court of appeals where he was released on $100,000 bail and had been free until his recent sentencing.
Three years for speaking his mind?

Remember this the next time some apologist for Ahmadinejad tries to convince you that Iran held truly democratic elections and that we in the West are guilty of unjustly demonising the current regime.

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