Digital World: Google's censorship talk bypasses Arab world

Is the company planning to do anything about net censorship and netizen rights in the Arab world?

January 25, 2010 15:43

Google talks tough when it comes to China's blocking human rights on the Internet - but is it planning to do anything about net censorship and netizen rights in the Arab world?

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Google suspects China of stealing intellectual property (both from it and from other companies), as well as hacking into the mail accounts of human rights activists. According to Google's press release (, appearing in an official blog last week, "[Google] discovered that at least 20 other large companies from a wide range of businesses (besides Google), including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors," have been targeted by hack attacks originating in China.

Why? "We have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists," Google says. "These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users' computers."

So: Some sites were hacked and hackers managed to get some malware onto the computers of "prime targets." That is the sum of Google's charges against China, and the reason the company has decided "that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China."

The reaction to this (possible) decision to shut down China's Google operations has been much more mixed than you might imagine. On the one hand, even constant Google critics like the Electronic Freedom Foundation ( have praised Google for its stance (although it did remind readers that Google originally agreed to Chinese censorship when it began operations in the country in 2006). On the other hand, there are plenty of contrarian blogger and talkback opinions posted on the thousands of articles that have appeared on this subject in the past week.

Opinions have ranged from comments like "Google just doesn't understand China's culture," to "this is no different than what goes on in many countries, where hacking and phishing are daily occurrences."

China evokes strong emotions among many Westerners, who fear what many still refer to as the "red menace," because of its communism, its lack of human rights, and its industrial fecundity. While many (mostly younger) Chinese bemoan the dictatorship that still controls the country, many older residents are thankful for the material benefits the "Chinese way" has bestowed upon them, especially in the past decade. It may be a dictatorship - on the net and off - say China-lovers, but at least the country has done much to raise the standard of living of many of its citizens.

I certainly do not approve of China's policies on human rights. All people should be free to surf and connect to anything they want, unless they make a personal decision to filter their own access willingly. But I bring the above by way of contrast to the Internet policies of countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even Jordan. Google not only does not protest the censorship and invasive net practices of Arab governments - it even cooperates with them. And not only has there been no criticism of these policies by Google, there has been no hint from the company that it intends to close down its offices anywhere in the Arab world ever.

An extensive catalog of Arab governments' netizen abuses can be seen at, which catalogs, country by country, the limitations on freedom of net surfing in Arab countries. Of course, you would expect heavy censorship in countries like Syria (where, the site says, all traffic is strictly monitored) and Libya (where just walking into an Internet cafe can get you into trouble). But even countries that regard themselves as "westernized" to some extent, like the UAE, Kuwait, and of course that bastion of democracy, Egypt, keep tabs on users and sites, sniffing out "inappropriate" use of the Internet.

Bloggers who dare to write something that their government disapproves of are likely to find themselves in jail, or worse. Contrary to the impression given in many Western media reports, the governments in conservative, Western-allied countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia not only seek to ban websites and blogs written by radical Islamists seeking to overthrow the old order - they're out to get any hint of criticism of the regime or its institutions, including (perhaps especially) complaints by the citizenry on even banal, everyday problems.

Who knows where such complaints could lead, after all?

Most countries ban access by users to thousands of sites that contain, in the words of a 2006 UAE law on legal use of the Internet (similar to laws in many other Arab countries), "content challenging public interest, public morality, public order and national security, national reconciliation, and Islamic morals, or content prohibited by the laws of the United Arab Emirates and their regulations." The law can be, and generally is, very widely interpreted, to include a panoply of "offenses;" just how widely can be seen at, which contains a depressingly long list of abuses against Internet users and "uncooperative" citizens seeking basic rights. Even Jordan, arguably the most "liberal" Arab country when it comes to Internet use, blocks hundreds of sites perceived to be critical of King Abdullah's regime, and according to OpenArabNet (, "tens of reporters were tried and face imprisonment" for "libel," a law that is apparently all too easy for journalists in Jordan to violate.

Believe it or not, even Internet voice services like Skype are banned in most Arab countries - apparently in order to keep up the profits of cellphone network operators ( Tens of millions of foreign workers, especially in the Gulf countries, are forced to spend exorbitant amounts on cellphone service in order to keep in touch with their loved ones, instead of using the far less costly VoIP services denied to them.

So what does Google have to say about any of this? Not a word (I searched the net high and low, using Google, of course). Apparently Google has invested all its human rights energy in China, leaving nothing left over for Egypt and the UAE - two countries where Google has offices, and that heavily censor (and punish) "inappropriate" Internet use, probably more harshly than China does. Yet there is no talk of Google closing down its offices in either country. It's not like the Arab world really wants Google around anyway. After all, YouTube (a Google product) has long been banned in most Arab countries because, as a UAE official quoted at says, "YouTube stirs hatred between the sons of our homeland."

Even China recanted its brief ban on Youtube last year. Why close offices in China, but not the Arab lands? If you're going to take a stand on Internet censorship, isn't it discriminatory - even racist - to come down hard on one set of abusers, while letting another group of abusers off the hook altogether?

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