Is Google Being Evil in China?

Google.cnThe Chinese government notoriously dislikes any organisation, particularly a foreign one, communicating directly to its people – so it’s little wonder that the story of Google in China has been one of jumping through fiery hoops.

This week Google has been under attack in China over internet pornography, especially with regards its ‘search suggestions’ drop-down box, which can suggest some salacious terms for fairly innocuous words. For this, Google was “strongly condemned” by the China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center (CIIRC), which describes itself as a non-governmental organisation on its own website.

From the CIIRC’s condemnation, the situation escalated quickly this week, with the Chinese government clearly unleashing the hounds on Google, with all national media – which are, with no exceptions, state-controlled – running the story of how Google is polluting China’s youth with its lewd search suggestions and pornographic links to foreign websites. Thus, Google has been bashed by national and local TV and newspapers for three solid days.

Suggestive Suggestions…
Admittedly, Google was caught red-handed with its overly-sexual search suggestions. These things appear by default across the Google globe, so when I start typing “football” it will begin to suggest more precise terms, such as “football games”, “football results”, etc., which is all very useful. But, as the Chinese media has been showing all week, if you type the word “son” in Chinese, on Google.cn, it will then offer up crude suggestions, such as “son and mother incest”. In all fairness, they got busted. And, as I type this, Google has switched off the suggestions only on Google.cn.

Google has already put in place a lot of safeguards to appease the difficult Chinese market. In China, on Google.cn only (which will appear by default if you type in Google.com but you’re in China AND your web browser’s settings are set to Chinese-language) it is not possible to switch off the ‘SafeSearch’ feature, and a lot of politically sensitive and pornographic material has already been removed.

So, from within China, if you search for ‘Tiananmen Square’ you get only views of the plaza, and not images from the events of 1989. And, if you search for “sexy” (in either Chinese or English), you will find no nudity in the image search results, in accordance with partial or full nudity being banned in China. So, Google has already being done things “with Chinese characteristics” during its four years in the Chinese market, but it has still been caught in the wrong this week, and will not be allowed to forget it.

Fixing It…
Google is now hurrying to fix the problem, by switching off the suggestions (easy), and removing all pornography from its results (not so easy). Google people have explained how they met with some government representatives a few days ago…

“to discuss problems with the Google.cn service and its serving of pornographic images and content based on foreign language searches”

“We are undertaking a thorough review of our service and taking all necessary steps to fix any problems with our results,“ a Google spokesperson said in an e-mail. “This has been a substantial engineering effort, and we believe we have addressed the large majority of the problem results”.
- an unnamed Google spokesperson

Unspecified “punishment” has been threatened by the Chinese government, and Google has been apologetic, issuing the statement: “We have been continually working to deal with pornographic content, and material that is harmful to children, on the Web in China”. But that may not placate the government.

All material on the Chinese webosphere is already subject to nationwide self-checking, where the punishment is usually getting shut-down, with no legal recourse, as happened to many websites last year during a massive ‘purge’ of indecent material, where Google’s rival Baidu, was actually the main focus of the censure.

Ulterior Motives…?
Possible motives for government and state-media attacking search engines are numerous, but the two most significant ones are fear of losing influence, and fear of losing revenue; both of which are likely to occur as younger, tech-savvy Chinese – some of whom are now fluent in English, or one or two other languages – are choosing their news sources on the web, and not all of them are domestic, and therefore contains news that has not passed through the state’s filter.

As for revenue, in attacking search giants like Baidu and Google, and video-sharing sites such as Youku and Tudou, the state, and state-media, can keep a check on new media which might well steal lucrative ad revenue, especially if corporations figure that a lot of young people spend more time online than watching either national or local news shows and dramas, which are the time-slots with the priciest advertising packages.

One More Thing: “Green Dam”
To throw one more ulterior motive into the mix, the whole Google debacle this week could well be linked to the upcoming, government-sanctioned web filter, dubbed “Green Dam-Youth Escort”, or ‘Green Dam’ for short. This piece of filtering sofware reared its head two weeks ago, when the Chinese government mandated it ought to be compulsory on all brand-new PCs sold in China from July 1st (as well as installed in retrospect on every computer in schools across the country).

This left PC makers scrambling to jump to another new restriction in its China operations, while at the same time not being seen to be a party to stifling of free speech – because many fear that ‘Green Dam’ is not just a porn filter to protect young eyes, it is also a political filter to wash young minds. Indeed, by peering into the software package, it is clear that it will also filter politically-sensitive keywords, as well as (attempt) to detect fleshy skin-tones that would indicate images of naked people.

In just the week after Green Dam emerged, it was exposed as containing stolen code from a US firm’s web filter app, and in tests Green Dam has been seen to have failed to detect African-American porn (because it was focusing only on pinky flesh tomes), sensde that pigs were naked humans, and began to filter any site beginning with the letter ‘F’ after a tester deliberately visited a poltically sensitive website.

The backlash against Green Dam has been swift and surprisingly large, in China as well as around the world. Search twitter trends for the hashtag #greendam or look at the satirical cartoons made by Chinese netizens and it is clear that younger web users have been outraged at their government having insulted their intelligence by mandating software to shepherd their time on the internet.

“Don’t be Evil”…?
So, although Google has been found to have some sexual content in their search suggestions and web searches from Google.cn, it may be a whipping boy in a propaganda campaign gearing towards the launch of Green Dam on all new PCs, with no signs of the government backing down over Green Dam, despite calls for a rethink based on security and online freedoms. But, Google in China will survive, and this will prove to have been just another fiery hoop that it has had to jump through in order to have access to China’s 300 million regular web users.

As for Chinese netizens, the spectre of Green Dam approaches, but there are some get-outs: it’s not compulsory on old machines, it only works with Internet Explorer (so, go get Firefox, Google Chrome, or Safari – all of which are much better than IE anyway – if Green Dam has been slapped onto your office or school PC), only on the Windows operating system, and Green Dam is uninstall-able on new machines that have come with it.