Google Would Remind My Grandpa Of The Arrogant White Invaders

Days after Google moved from China, Sergey Brin is pushing the US to fight censorship there. But the West have a history of forcing moral and economic standards onto foreigners. This sort of thinking isn't good - it's how wars start.

Censorship - a dirty word to netizens of the free world! But we have censorship and propaganda of our own to preserve corporate interests. I'm not sure any of us should be applauding Google's stance.

I have a different perspective than many. I was born in this country. Yet I spent all my summers in Hong Kong, a land leased to the British after the Opium Wars. In a nutshell, wars fought over the right to import opium to the Chinese. The thing is, the British knew opium was bad stuff, having banned it themselves. The British fought a war to bring harmful substances into a foreign country for the sake of profit. China lost and had to tolerate the trade.

My grandpa could be a mean racist. But besides that, Grandpa was at once both proudly resistant to the hyper-capitalist British and the communists, having lost a great deal of wealth and culture to the Chinese faction and a great deal of culture and pride to the western one. He was the first member to be invited to an all-white Hong Kong private club, which he declined. Yet it was no easier to resist the invasion of culture and ideology than it had been to resist British gunboats, and soon subversive ideas like advertisements - commercial propaganda - were common.

Grandpa forced all of us to wear Western suits at dinner from a young age, drink French wine and eat European food. My grandpa, before his stroke, still talked about how embarrassed he was the first time he tried to eat with a fork and knife; his chicken flew off his plate. I got the sense that it was hard to not feel like the westerners were right about Chinese ways being barbaric.

This has happened so many times when conquering nations met locals. In Hawaii, surfing was banned for being too sensual by missionaries. We introduced the capitalist idea to Native Americans that one could own the land, the sky, the water, and that it did not belong to all people and animals and their gods. Forcing values on other countries has been a tradition for westerners.

But "profit" and "mine" and "invasion" have never been nasty words to western countries the way words like "communism" and "censorship" have been. (China isn't saintly with regard to the notion of possession by any means - hello Tibet! Hello Taiwan!)

Google entered China with trepidation in 2006: "We ultimately reached our decision by asking ourselves which course would most effectively further Google's mission to organise the world's information and make it universally useful and accessible. Or, put simply: how can we provide the greatest access to information to the greatest number of people?

"Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world's population, however, does so far more severely."

Google was there for themselves, for the sake of their greater mission to provide a lot of information in a reliable way, yet wary of tainting themselves by interfacing with a government so controlling of information. Which makes a lot of sense if you look at Google's own thirst to control - or at least profit from - the entire internet, the global ocean of data. But still attempting to Do No Evil, of course. We probably all gave them some hell for censoring themselves, but it was a noble effort to do what they could while respecting local jurisdiction.

Now, Google's not exactly the British government, even if they express dominion over the net as old empires did over the globe. They were there, doing their thing, until yesterday, when the clash of ideologies was revealed. Google didn't want to help China censor its results anymore, even if that meant no change to users who would get filtered via China's firewall. It was a statement. A moral stand coincidentally triggered by the hacking accusations Google threw at China. With that peg, and the quote below, it seems like they were against China in its entirety, but lets just stick to the words below.

As Brin told the NYtimes, growing up in a country that wasn't free with its words affected his reversal of a decision to participate in a country that regulated information.

"…in matters of censorship, political speech and Internet communications, he said, there is a totalitarian mentality that controls policy. "Our objection is to those forces of totalitarianism," he said."

Who couldn't respect that? After all, they retreated, instead of forcing their way in like so many invaders, or like the Brits and their opium, which even they didn't want. "Do your own dirty work, China," said Google, "Filter your own net. We won't do it for you." But China is right to be weary for similar, implicit reasons. The addiction of culture and ideology is a serious one, more widespread and more dangerous than opium.

China responded to Google by press release: "In fact, no country allows unrestricted flow on the Internet of pornographic, violent, gambling or superstitious content, or content on government subversion, ethnic separatism, religious extremism, racialism, terrorism and anti-foreign feelings."

China's right about the different levels of allowable government subversion and censorship that happen all over the world. And they're right to want to decide what goes on their net - or at least no more wrong than any other government. (Even if the penalties in China are deadly serious, literally, for some transgressions. This matters. I will not discount that but it also isn't a part of what I'm trying to say.)

Australia routinely bans video games and movies with controversial content. In the US, Kiddie porn lands you in legal trouble here as does any public threat of violence against others. And did you know that in 2004, Google and Yahoo decided to not advertise online gambling sites, even though it was not illegal? And this blogger compares the UK Digital Economy Bill to China's net censorship laws, point by point. Especially those sections introduced by the local recording industry reps.

It's true on a deeper level, too, if you think about our concerns as a capitalist society instead of a communist one. In the US, we have plenty of censorship that China doesn't - that which protects commercial interests, specifically media, in terms of information flow . (China does not, tacitly encouraging a culture of piracy.)

Think about the entire Digital Millennia Copyright Act, which puts the profits of companies above the flow of bits. Think about Google's YouTube, which is complying with the law by removing copyrighted material, even though it might benefit the culture-at-large to see Avatar for free on YouTube. (It might not benefit the people who made Avatar, of course.)

That's censorship in a raw form. Larry Lessig, internet rights genius, once even suggested that copyright violates the First Amendment. That's restriction of information. Believe me, I'm an American and I believe in protecting the rights of content producers. I agree with those rules. But it's still a form of censorship. One that does not fit into the ideology of those who live in China, a country that makes most of our physical gadgets from things other than bits, which can be copied for free-ish. Someone said to me, "That's stealing! You're breaking the law!" Well that's true, but in China, where they write the rules, talking smack about the government is also illegal. The powers that be are the powers that be.

DMCA censorship tastes better because it fits in with our ideology of putting profits and individual goals ahead of that of the masses people. To China, that's not something that's more important than protecting its government from uprisings or sharing movies for free with people for the cost of the disc, not the bits. You're talking about a country that struggled for ages to unite, and Qin Shi Huang united the warring states in 221 BCE - and that wasn't the first unification. (Keep in mind I only learned that from Wikipedia, since you don't' learn much about Chinese history in white people American school.) Of course these people want to keep shit under control. You could swap the scenario and switch out "blocking Avatar on Youtube to stop theft" with "blocking searches of anti Chinese government talk to stop government uprising." The similarities between capitalist censorship and communist censorship is something hard to fathom, but spend a minute considering how it looks to China. In America, the people with the money have a lot of say.

Let's not even get into lobbyists.

Then there's propaganda. What's the capitalist equivalent to China's government approved spew? Ads! The bacon which is brought home for Google! But it's ok, because we're used to it, I suppose. We take it for granted.

China is peopled by a culture who believed that their leaders were god-chosen, as part of the mandate of heaven. Unlike the US, historically checks and balances weren't needed in China, because new regime changes were as simple as the gods sending an earthquake. Look back at the China quote, fearful of losing themselves again to outsiders after losing so much culture to the communists. China should be fearful of Google, too, a company daring to take on a foreign nation's local policies. Bold Google, though, does not stand for the freedom of the internet as much as the freedom to sell ads on our data.

China should fear Google, as a government, and a people. And even as people scared of their own government, and people like my father, a capitalist living in Hong Kong, who often defends China's right to freedom from western influence. Seeing the perverse effects of westernisation on Hong Kong, good and bad - a land where a few years ago it had the most Rolls Royces per capita of any country, where shopping seems to be the national past time, and with no major art museums - I don't blame China for being wary of big business: "Regrettably, Google's recent behaviours show that the company not just aims at expanding business in China, but is playing an active role in exporting culture, value and ideas."

I can't help but think back to my grandpa's conscious resistance to the British, while still being seduced by the subtle influence which made him feel like he was less of a man if he didn't wear a European suit. How much of his own sense of culture did that cost him? Xenophobia is working in all directions now. But Chinese companies aren't powerful or presumptuous enough to try to push policy on the US. (They just finance our debt.)

So is Google putting up a fuss about open information flow as a principle, while providing internet services to places like Australia and the US and other places that do varying amounts of filtering or penalising for accessing certain kinds of data? Or are they talking about the censorship of governmental criticisms and therefore human rights? Because if it's human rights, that's an interesting moral stance. Oh look, a quote from Brin today, blasting Microsoft for respecting Chinese law:

"As I understand, they have effectively no market share – so they essentially spoke against freedom of speech and human rights simply in order to contradict Google."

Sergey, what about the rights of the Chinese as a whole?

As an American, I applaud such a statement on one level, while fully aware of our own government's many moral transgressions. As the son of my grandfather, a guy who hated the condescending white devils on his shore as much as he hated communism, I am weary of such moral judgments. Especially from a company that would benefit from the opening of such gates where the information (and ads) can flow anywhere there's an internet connection. Right Brin? After all, the quote above implies that one's stance can indeed change depending on what effects they'll have on profits.For the glory of the free people! That we will sell corporate-bought ads to!

Really, it's hard to argue with any of the rules we have in the US, as they directly reflect and serve our ideologies. Obviously I agree with them enough to repeat them, to work in an industry supported by capitalism and advertising. I think freedom of speech should extend to criticism of governments, because we need those checks and balances. In the end, I get why the US and Google support censorship of things like copyrighted materials and serve cease-and-desist notices for newsworthy leaks of corporate secrets.

What moral ground do we have for judging Google and the US as Good, and China as Evil? Do you understand how my grandpa might indeed view Google and the US as a smuggler of foreign ideas, a propagandist via corporate ads, and a government dog that approves media censorship to protect the profits of corporations?

The part in me mistrustful of great bodies of power doesn't think we're better. We're just capitalists. And Google's ignorant to think that China's the only one doing evil here. Because the way Google's spreading through my personal technology, taking over one piece of the puzzle at a time, I feel they're a happy smiling symbol of imperialism and information totalitarianism while also the world's most powerful provider of ads online. (And soon, everywhere.) And if you're talking about checks and balances in terms of governments needing them, I'd like to remind you that Google has more power and influence than many small countries at this point. In coming years who knows what will happen? It's hard to imagine them not having even more marketshare and users on the internet.

I suppose I fear Google for the same reason many Americans fear China. It's not what they're doing to us today, but what power they might have over us tomorrow if left unchecked. Not to my body, as with corporeal punishment in China, which the US thankfully protects me from in least in part. But to my mind, which will be filled with advertising slogans about things that I do not want to buy, and do not want to think about, and do not want to help promote and with the idea that if I do not have these things, I will be a less happy person. This is seriously dangerous. (I'd like to take this moment to thank the sponsors of this site!)

Nothing's free, and no corporation or country has ever wielded a great deal of power without committing evil. Maybe those are things both China and Google could both stand to learn.


Comments

    I would thank you to stop repeatedly including Australia in your censorship diatribe; Australia has no internet firewall in place at this time, and although it is planned by the current administration, there is a general election later this year and it might never be implemented.

    Also, you do realise you are defending a country that literally will shoot people for standing up against the government? For voicing their opinions? Maybe some free-speaking Western ideals wouldn't go down so badly. After all, us decadent capitalists might promote profit, but we also promote the right to free speech, fair (and open!) trials and civil liberties. To defend China with a blanket claim of resisting Western idealism is akin to defending a murderer in an uncivilised nation - just because he breaks no legal law, does he not break our own, inbuilt sense of morals?

      The author mentioned Australia banning video games. That is true, R18+ video games are currently banned. It is also true that there is even at present some form of internet 'filtering' in Australia, though in a passive form. The ACMA can oblige ISPs to restrict access to contents which it considers likely to be fall under the RC category. The proposed ISP filter is not the only 'firewall'.

      And why can't China choose to resist Western idealism? Western countries can choose not to impose 'an eye for an eye' legal penalties practised by other countries. What is right in one's mind, might not be in another's.

        There is no passive filtering on any level in Australia at the moment. ISPs are obliged to take down RC content if the ACMA asks them to, but ONLY when the ISP is hosting that content on an Australian server. It is not possible for the ACMA to block (or ask ISPs to block) sites with RC content hosted outside Australia.

        I particularly like the comparison of communist/Chinese censorship with western censorship.

    Thanks for the Google hate.

    Entering the Chinese market Google has not forced anything on to the "Chinese as a whole".

    Exiting (semi-exiting) the Chinese market Google has not forced anything on to the "Chinese as a whole".

    So what was your argument exactly? Right ...

    Good article Brian. Recognizing our own idealisms and moral frameworks (and their limitations) goes a long way toward understanding. Nobody goes into a war THINKING they're wrong (unless other factors are at play =P)

    It makes for a better story to compare Google with the British Empire, but there is a big difference between changing the filtering on a free web service (no matter how good or important) and open warfare between Nation States. And for that matter, there is a huge difference between the policy around information control and censorship in China and, say, the DCMA. I don't support the the DMCA but the consequences of the DMCA can't be reasonably compared with the arrests and imprisonment that have resulted from Chinese policy. For background look up the Amnesty International report "Controls tighten as Internet activism grows".

    There is a difference of degree, kind and impact between (say) U.S., Australian and even Thai censorship and Chinese censorship.

    Moral relativism is an interesting philosophical debate. But I'm glad that there are people who are prepared to draw a moral difference between DMCA take downs or banner ads and imprisonment for reporting SARS outbreaks.

    Ironically Google, as a search engine, far from "playing an active role in exporting culture, value and ideas", tends to just report the prevailing culture, value and ideas. Its a shame the Chinese Government seem to be afraid of that.

    not only that, but the oppressive control which characterises the chinese governments dealings with it's citizens is hardly a cultural phenomenon

    more an imported idealist vision turned corrupt regime... oh... was that your point?

    If you seriously consider the spin surrounding Google withdrawing from an expensive and restrictive market as a "statement against oppression" rather than what it really is, then you need to take a long hard look at the media coverage and free exposure this has given them.

    The general populace is always crying out for corporations to be more responsible. To push for betterment of society along whilst also bringing in enough money to keep said society prosperous is what makes a company a cultural icon.
    What drives this push? As igfe pointed out, popular opinion and cultural values. Combine that with corporate agendas and you end up with the Google standpoint.

    A more generic service means cheaper deployment costs, simpler maintenance schedules, lower risk and so on. Withdrawing from a hostile environment and labelling it as a "stand against oppression" is good PR. Withdrawing from a hostile environment for most other options would, for a company of Google's size, be admitting defeat.

    For a more direct point of view, compare China to most large companies. The regime is oppressive, the laws are unique and confusing to outsiders. They do not respond kindly to other people telling them how to run their affairs and claim that everything is just fine, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

    All I'm seeing throughout this entire fiasco is one small corporation complaining to it's parent company and it's customers that the competition isn't playing by the same set of rules they do. The rest really is just spin.

    It's interesting that one word is missing in this article: slavery. British empire was the force behinf the end of slavery in most of the world. So, was it really a force of evil? The answer to that question is a lot more complicated that the thing you're trying to sell us.

    What a load of nonsense. This is the sort of reasoning that encourages oppression in the "name of respect for other cultures". The same line of reasoning is used by moral relativists to justify fundametalist islamic oppression. The bad bad colonizing west. ohhh so terrible. Unfortunantely this is 2010 and we have all moved on. The article attempts to deny the fact that the world (and it's moral standards) develop as time goes by. The idea that we can permanently argue against the actions of a culture or country based on history is nonsense. By that reasoning we should definetly be resisting any cultural or economic imports from Japan and Germany - 2 far more recent perpetrators of evil on a far larger scale. However, when the German Chancellor Schroeder refused to go along with Bush in the Iraq War, few would criticise him because the Nazis were against America too in the past. This entire article is ignoring the core issue. Censorship and imprisonement and political persecution. I don't care what culture you are trying to "protect". The PRC actually has a good record of destroying all chinese culture itself...

    Such a lengthy article really should be more intellectually rigorous. I appreciate the time you've put into writing it Brian, and hope it stimulates some thoughtful discussion, but there's a few bits and pieces I have issues with-

    "Forcing values on other countries has been a tradition for westerners" With colonialism so recent it may seem so, but all major cultures and countries have done the same- especially the Han Chinese to other parts of china.

    "Which makes a lot of sense if you look at Google’s own thirst to control – or at least profit from – the entire internet" Is such a pejorative tone towards google really warranted? evidence?

    "hacking accusations Google threw at China" If you think the hacking of Google didn't occur or wasn't sponsored by china's government you're dreaming, otherwise more unwarranted emotive slanting.

    Your conflation of copyright and censorship, along with the qualifying statement's about supporting copyright took up so much space and imparted so little meaning. The same applies for ads and propaganda.

    "but in China, where they write the rules, talking smack about the government is also illegal. The powers that be are the powers that be." This is the heart of the problem in discussions about discord between china and the rest of the world- There is a difference between china's government and its people. It's people do not elect the government, its operation is opaque and oppressive. Demanding acceptance of this status Quo is ridiculous.

    "Because the way Google’s spreading through my personal technology, taking over one piece of the puzzle at a time, I feel they’re a happy smiling symbol of imperialism and information totalitarianism" Someone is forcing you to use their products? There's plenty of other options, of all companies they make it easiest to switch away from them...

    "But to my mind, which will be filled with advertising slogans about things that I do not want to buy, and do not want to think about" The majority of Google's ads are contextual, relevant and non-intrusive text. Such a throw away statement may apply to advertising in general but is silly when applied to google

    To be honest, I don't have any moral qualms with an oppressive government imposing death on me for talking negatively about it. I just won't talk negatively about it. I think that's the reality for those who live with totalitarian regimes.
    Besides, if you look at America vs. China, who's better off? America's government is out of control, and running itself into the ground, while China is poised as a superpower.
    And, don't fool yourself into thinking that America is free. Corporations control what jobs you get, what you wear to get them, where you can afford to live, and even what you eat and drink. Money controls everything in American society.
    Brian knows what he's talking about.

    "The Chinese should be afraid of Google as a people."
    What sort of bizarro world do you live in? I'm not Chinese, so can't speak for them (but lived and worked on the mainland for many years, have a Chinese wife and speak fluent Mandarin) but Google is doing nothing to harm them. Perhaps the government should be afraid, but that's all.

    You were born and raised in the West, and are well and truly a Westener (as am I), so please don't attempt to imply you are anything but.
    Neither your family name nor your ancestors are relevant.

    Opium imports vs refusal to censor? !!!!!!

    Copyright and censor ship ar two totally and utterly separate issues by the way (although they are happening on the same medium). Jumping between them was illogical.

    Brian, as someone who spent every summer in Hong Kong, you should known better than to say that Hong Kong was leased to the British.

    Hong Kong Island was ceded "in perpetuity" to the British in 1842 in through the Treaty of Nanking. The British territory was further expanded through the signing of the Treaty of Peking in 1860 in which China ceded the area of Kowloon south of Boundary Road to the British.

    The remainder of the Kowloon peninsular and the surrounding islands, collectively known as the New Territories, were leased to the British on a 99-year term in 1898.

    In 1984, in a joint Sino-British declaration, the two governments announced that all of the British colony of Hong Kong, including those areas ceded in perpetuity, would be handed back to China in 1997 upon the expiration of the lease of the New Territories.

    We could get rid of the system Google is seemingly pushing to promote. It seems inevitable that it will go.

    What we see with big media consolidation is really the process of it folding.

    Technology is quickly being introduced that is capable of serving literally everything. That means all access, all aps, all content, all communication and all services. The hardware is becoming completely generic and the economies of scale are such that even a small non profit will be able to do it. Even ‘search’ can be done this way- and by this way I mean all of it can be done ad free with good privacy and no attempt to control what anyone looks at. That way of doing things I precisely the way to grab market share, change culture and get us off the sponsorship that undermines representation and communication. Its also what’s needed to get us to shift to a more ecological mindset.

    The mechanism is simple and can be supported by a non profit with a monthly recurring donation. Almost by definition organizations so engaged would be redundant. The would provide free tools and hosting and not trying to attach IP or get exclusivity in return for the ability to host indefinitely without restriction. Contributors would be free to post where ever they like. In each case a contributor (even an end user that met some minimum definition for a content posting) would paid out of the general donation pool or alternatively a subscription. They would be recompensed per instance of end user attention paid.

    It’s a simple system, it’s a content exchange. It fits with the idea that all content is really just communication. It fits with the idea that demand based advertising is rightly dying for non contribution and social uselessness and also out of pure obsolescence and us being to busy to have our time wasted. We certainly weren’t going in the direction of having phone calls or skype calls (true person to person communication) interrupted by ads. We weren’t going to have our games interrupted by ads (what a stupid idea.) We don’t want our diner interrupted by spam calls or our email box filled with it. We don’t even like panhandling which actually serves a useful purpose. We don’t want our commutes interrupted by death causing, property devaluing, traffic jamming bill boards when at the same time we are being told how to use our cell phones. We don’t like being charged more for food at the grocery store for not handing out our private info with silly cards. We don’t’ like the theft of our time and attention or the idea that A can pay B to exploit our time and attention and never even consult us and that we are supposed to accept this.

    In short our autonomy is based on our control over our privacy (it really should be the mandated default position.) and our dominion over our attention span. Not having your life interrupted is a matter of self determination and self definition. The value of your citizen ship and even the value of the country to you has a lot to do with having a voice and not being intentionally drown out by interruption. Want to short something, then short the advertising (as apposed to true product education on the other side of a user initiated search,) media, and publication businesses- they are obsolete. Remember also that true neutrality means ‘they’ do not have the right to force us to watch a modal ad, it also emphasizes that we own the spectrum and the markets and boot them at will and eve where there might be some compensation involved with removal we can decide how little it will be.

    Whoa, it's interesting to see how the descendants of the opium traders and their agents are all up in arms when facts are presented outside the framework of oppression. You guys drank too much of your own Kool Aid if you think the same people who almost enslaved the entire planet would attempt to liberate it.

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