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?

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

Googlesuspects China of stealing intellectual property (both from it and fromother companies), as well as hacking into the mail accounts of humanrights 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 widerange of businesses (besides Google), including the Internet, finance,technology, media and chemical sectors," have been targeted by hackattacks originating in China.

Why? "We have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of theattackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rightsactivists," Google says. "These accounts have not been accessed throughany security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams ormalware placed on the users' computers."

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

The reaction to this (possible) decision to shutdown China's Google operations has been much more mixed than you mightimagine. On the one hand, even constant Google critics like theElectronic Freedom Foundation ( have praisedGoogle for its stance (although it did remind readers that Googleoriginally agreed to Chinese censorship when it began operations in thecountry in 2006). On the other hand, there are plenty of contrarianblogger and talkback opinions posted on the thousands of articles thathave appeared on this subject in the past week.

Opinions have ranged from comments like "Google just doesn'tunderstand China's culture," to "this is no different than what goes onin many countries, where hacking and phishing are daily occurrences."

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


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 accesswillingly. But I bring the above by way of contrast to the Internetpolicies of countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even Jordan. Googlenot only does not protest the censorship and invasive net practices ofArab governments - it even cooperates with them. And not only has therebeen no criticism of these policies by Google, there has been no hintfrom the company that it intends to close down its offices anywhere inthe Arab world ever.

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

Bloggers who dare to write something that their governmentdisapproves of are likely to find themselves in jail, or worse.Contrary to the impression given in many Western media reports, thegovernments in conservative, Western-allied countries like Egypt andSaudi Arabia not only seek to ban websites and blogs written by radicalIslamists seeking to overthrow the old order - they're out to get anyhint of criticism of the regime or its institutions, including (perhapsespecially) complaints by the citizenry on even banal, everydayproblems.

Who knows where such complaints could lead, after all?

Most countries ban access by users to thousands of sites thatcontain, in the words of a 2006 UAE law on legal use of the Internet(similar to laws in many other Arab countries), "content challengingpublic interest, public morality, public order and national security,national reconciliation, and Islamic morals, or content prohibited bythe laws of the United Arab Emirates and their regulations." The lawcan be, and generally is, very widely interpreted, to include a panoplyof "offenses;" just how widely can be seen at,which contains a depressingly long list of abuses against Internetusers 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'sregime, and according to OpenArabNet (,"tens of reporters were tried and face imprisonment" for "libel," a lawthat is apparently all too easy for journalists in Jordan to violate.

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

So what does Google have to say about any ofthis? Not a word (I searched the net high and low, using Google, ofcourse). Apparently Google has invested all its human rights energy inChina, leaving nothing left over for Egypt and the UAE - two countrieswhere 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 eithercountry. It's not like the Arab world really wants Google aroundanyway. After all, YouTube (a Google product) has long been banned inmost Arab countries because, as a UAE official quoted at says, "YouTube stirs hatred between the sonsof our homeland."

EvenChina recanted its brief ban on Youtube last year. Why close offices inChina, but not the Arab lands? If you're going to take a stand onInternet censorship, isn't it discriminatory - even racist - to comedown hard on one set of abusers, while letting another group of abusersoff the hook altogether?