The War Over Words: Why Google's New Approach to China Should Be the Only Approach

While I applaud Google for their brave decision, their "discomfort" around having to censor should have been taken more seriously the first time around.
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Yesterday, Google announced formally what many of us in the human rights world told them four years ago would happen if they stepped into the ring with the Chinese government.

It appears that our friends in Beijing, since striking a deal with the ubiquitous search engine in 2006 -- have been methodically spying on them, hacking their user accounts, and mining their data, specifically for the purpose of gathering intelligence on human rights activists and free speech advocates. In other words, they've been doing exactly what despotic tyrannical regimes do best. Blatantly violating international standards of free speech and privacy and spying on people.

This type of ugly sortie into the privacy and freedom of the individual is not news. As an active campaigner for Tibetan independence, I take it for granted that my day to day email communications -- along with those of many of my peers -- are monitored closely. In 2008, The Washington Post published an article that detailed the sophistication of Chinese attacks on various human rights groups, including Students for a Free Tibet, in which it was revealed that we were being targeted with the same advanced Chinese Trojan Horses and encryption busters used against the Pentagon and the Department of Defense.

At SFT's New York offices, there are running jokes about the all-too-obvious surveillance and harassment that goes on. In May of 2008, at the height of the Olympic Torch Protests, SFT's phone systems were hacked so that all the lines repeatedly called each other and outgoing calls were impossible. At the office, its not uncommon to pick up a phone to make an outgoing call, and -- in addition to the clicks are whooshes that are common to tapped lines -- actually hear people speaking Chinese on the line. If you want an idea of the level of monitoring and interference taking place, imagine waking up regularly to emails sent from your own account, by you, written in your language, to your lists, with viruses attached... that you didn't write.

Those of us who live sheltered under an umbrella of due process and relative freedom can laugh off these types of attacks. I've often said that if the Chinese government really wants to pay some hack to sit around and do nothing but read my emails, more power to them.

But in China and Tibet, the consequences are for more dire. Who knows, over the last several years, exactly how many human rights activists and free speech advocates have been arrested as a result of the new technologies and access to user data that companies like google and yahoo have helped the Chinese government put in place. Surveillance certainly played a huge part in the recent arrests of Dhondup Wangchen and Liu Xiabo, for example. And as we continue to monitor the arrest and disappearance of Tibetans, we see a disproportionate number of dissidents are located and arrested based on their use of monitored technology.

For years, human rights activists have been told by legislators and business leaders that the democratic opening of China would be an inevitable by product of the free flow of capital.

Yesterday's news demonstrates clearly how this already thin equation has utterly dissolved. Beijing has demonstrated, over and over, that they care nothing for increased transparency and openness, nor do they have any interest in allowing the individual to live the type of life promised under the International Declaration of Human Rights. Quite the opposite, Beijing is investing huge sums of money into increasing their ability to monitor and control their citizens. The 2008 Olympics heightened this capacity exponentially, with a sizable chunk of the overall "security" budget going to the creation of long-term surveillance capacity. Tibet's Brave New World -- the period since the March 2008 uprisings -- has seen a huge increase in surveillance systems in every major monastery, university, and potential hotpoint.

Beijing's policy of continual increase in surveillance technology is coupled with a blatant and thuggish disregard for anything related to digital privacy. They have made it illegal for individuals to register domain names. They have publicly stated that they would like every computer in China to have built in Spyware. And they clearly have no qualms about violating international law when they want access to private email accounts.

Finally, this week, it appears that a major corporate player, Google, has reached their wit's end with the thuggishness, illegal interference, harassment, and broken promises. In a blog post that maintains its professionalism yet can't completely hide the "WTF guys, we tried our to best to work with you, and you are just repeatedly screwing us" sentiment, the company said it will no longer play by Beijing's rules. Its about time.

Google's statement may seem long overdue to some. It may seem to others as straightforward as an isolated business dispute that needs to be resolved. I say it is the most significant development in the battle for free speech in a very, very long time. I do not exaggerate when I say that what hangs in the balance around this issue is.... everything.

To say that free speech, the right of human beings to express themselves as they see fit without fear of imprisonment or torture or death, is a rare and precious thing in human history would be to put it mildly. It has been a long and bloody battle to arrive at the place we are today. How many tens of thousands of persecuted religious followers, minorities, women, slaves, philosophers, scientists and free thinkers have been put under the boot, the blade or the gun for voicing their views? How many thousands more continue to fight the battle every day, in Iran, in Burma, in Tibet, in the Middle East, across the African continent... and here at home?

How precious, that we have enshrined this right in a global declaration signed by all nations. How absolutely vital that we preserve it. How great the darkness, should we ever forget, should we ever fall back to a place in which there is no recourse, no voice, no due process, no justice for the free human being. How great the darkness...

As I write this, we are faced with the spectre of a rising super power that places no value on individual rights, and who, left to shape the world in their image, will create something pretty damn frightening. If we truly hold the value of freedom of speech in the place that it deserves -- as a delicate flame of light that we as human beings are charged with protecting, then we can not bend on what that means in day to day practice, even a little. We cannot bend no matter how much money, or power, or strategic influence is at stake. Some things are of far more importance.

While I applaud Google for their brave decision, their "discomfort" around having to censor should have been taken more seriously the first time around, because there are very few good places such a decision can lead. Once you go down that road, it will inevitably lead to places of greater ambiguity, greater ethical dilemma, and greater concern. Luckily, free thinking minds prevailed, before the unthinkable ( for example, the company NOT disclosing China's shenanigans in favor of keeping the relationship strong) happened. Over the next few weeks I encourage the Google-folk to maintain the firm stance they did yesterday. Bending on these issues is not an option. Too much is at stake.

Hopefully Google's actions will start to show some US companies -- and our good President, for that matter -- that they do have influence with the Chinese, they do have power in that relationship.... and that we can make change by living according to principle. Moving forward, other companies MUST follow Google's lead. Restrictions should be put in place on selling the Chinese government technology, software, or hardware that enables surveillance and digital privacy invasion. And when Beijing plays foul, in any circumstance, companies have a responsibility to call them out on it, as Google has done.

It is easy, in the relative comfort of our modern lives, to forget the consequences of a few small actions. Censoring a few words here, limiting a few freedoms there, these are significant actions on the perimeter of what is quite literally -- along with climate change -- the defining issue of our time -- whether or not we will live in a free future. The democratizing power of the internet, a truly profound development in the short span of my life, can quickly be turned on its head and used as a means to control a population and as a way to access -- and eliminate -- those undesirables who think thoughts and write words that are deemed dangerous to power.

Since the very first word was spoken, there has always been a tension between those who would raise their voice freely and enliven the world around them, and those who would crush them for it. Freedom truly is a war over words, and in this battle, the free thinkers struck a well-deserved and long overdue blow. Keep it up.

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