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?
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
(http://tinyurl.com/yhfgo9k), 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 Google.cn, 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 Google.cn, 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 (http://tinyurl.com/yeyfje6) 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."
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
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 http://openarab.net/en, 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
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 http://www.anhri.net/en/,
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 (http://tinyurl.com/yzzol6m),
"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 (http://tinyurl.com/y9nbqsc).
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
http://tinyurl.com/y9lm96a says, "YouTube stirs hatred between the sons
of our homeland."
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?