Our View: Keep Internet free
Google and China continue to spar over Internet freedom in the Communist nation. Google is trying to stay as clear of government censorship as possible; China wants to control information flow with a heavy hand.
The two could be reaching a pivotal moment and the outcome could have lasting implications for the global Internet, which in just 15 years has become the equivalent of the nervous system of the global economy and lifeblood of political discourse. It facilitates trade, relationships and individual freedom. But, will it become Balkanized by nation or region, as some governments take steps to confront this challenge to their monopoly on information?
The biggest threat is in China, with the world's most populous nation at 1.3 billion people and the world's biggest market for the Internet.
The standoff began earlier this year when Google gave up its deal with China to filter Internet searches after what it called a "cyberattack" by the Chinese, and, instead, "automatically redirected Chinese users to google.com.hk, which is maintained on the company's servers in Hong Kong," reported The New York Times. Chinese officials responded to the redirect by threatening to cancel Google's Internet operating license.
On Monday, Google said it would no longer automatically redirect Chinese users to an uncensored search site in Hong Kong but would instead add a link on its main Chinese Web page to direct users to its Hong Kong search engine, the Wall Street Journal reported.
China devotes "enormous manpower to censorship, filtering out material based on keywords," says Eddan Katz. He is international affairs director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Other countries do so as well, he said, such as Thailand, Turkey, Malaysia and Afghanistan. They also advance censorship by "pressuring third parties, Internet service providers and search engines, to do the work."
He pointed out that, because the Internet is decentralized, even in the most repressive societies "there are people on the edges who use proxy servers" — an intermediary device — "and anonymization to circumvent censorship, even though they take some risks doing so," if the authorities locate them.
Google is in a "tit for tat" game with China's government, he said. "It remains to be seen if China relents."
The immediate effect could bear on an upcoming visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to the Obama White House. Because Google has close ties to Barack Obama, the visit could be difficult if the censorship issue isn't yet resolved.
In the meantime, America needs to watch its own leaders regarding Internet freedom: Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., told CNN on June 20: "Right now, China, the government, can disconnect parts of its Internet in a case of war. We need to have that here, too." No, we don't. The Internet is so integral to our lives today that shutting it down would be like blocking every road in the country.
Whatever happens elsewhere, here Internet always should remain just the way it grew up — free.