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Google Gets On the Right Side of History

No more censored searches to please the Chinese government.


night in the mid-1990s when I was working as a journalist in Beijing, I
went out to dinner with some Chinese friends. I had just finished
reading a book called "The File" by the British historian Timothy
Garton Ash. It’s about what happened in East Berlin after the Berlin
Wall came down and everybody could see the files the Stasi had been
keeping all those years. People discovered who had been ratting on
whom—in some cases neighbors and co-workers, but also lovers, spouses
and even children. After I described the book to my Chinese dinner
companions—a hip and artsy intellectual crowd—one friend declared:
"Some day the same thing will happen in China, then I’ll know who my
real friends are."

The table went silent.

China today is very different from Soviet-era Eastern Europe. It’s
unlikely that its current political system—or its system for blocking
foreign Web sites known widely as the "great firewall"—will crumble
like the Berlin Wall any time soon. Both are supported and enabled by
the current geopolitical, commercial and investment climate in ways
that Soviet-era Eastern Europe and the Iron Curtain never were.

I do believe, however, that in my lifetime the Chinese people may
learn more about some of the conversations that have taken place over
the past decade between Internet company executives and Chinese
authorities. When that happens, they will know who sold them out and
who was most eager to help the Chinese Communist Party in building a
blinkered cocoon of disinformation around their lives—and in some cases

This censored environment makes it easier for the Chinese government
to lie to its people, steal from them, turn a blind eye when they are
poisoned with tainted foodstuffs, and cover up their children’s deaths
due to substandard building codes. It is a constant struggle, and
sometimes literally a crime, for people to share information about such
matters or to use the Internet to mobilize against corruption and

That is the information environment
that China’s business elites, many of whom have gotten rich running
Internet and telecommunications companies, are responsible for helping
to build and maintain. For now they are national heroes, having made
great (and lucrative) efforts on behalf of China’s economic growth and
global competitiveness, making China a force to be reckoned with on the
global stage. But if history takes some unexpected turns—and that’s the
one thing you can count on Chinese history doing—it won’t always be on
their side.

By announcing it will no longer censor its Chinese search engine and
will reconsider its presence in China, Google has taken a bold step
onto the right side of history.

Four years ago when Google entered the Chinese market and launched
Google.cn, Chinese bloggers called it the "neutered Google." At the
time, Google executives said the decision to bow to the Chinese
government’s censorship demands had been made after heated internal
debates. They said they had weighed the positives and negatives and
concluded Chinese Internet users were better off with the neutered
Google than with no Google. They drew a red line under search and said
they would not bring any other Google products containing users’
personal information—including email and blogging—into China. They held
to that line.

Over the past four years I tested Google.cn from time to time and
compared its search results with the Chinese market leader, Baidu. I
found that Google.cn tended to censor search results somewhat less than
Baidu. This supported Google’s argument that it at least gave Chinese
Internet users more information than the domestic alternatives.

Google executives also pointed out that a notice appeared at the
bottom of every page of censored results on Google.cn, informing users
that some information was being hidden from them at the behest of
Chinese authorities. In this way, the logic went, they were at least
being honest with the Chinese public about the fact that Google was
helping their government put blinkers on them.

The company’s effort to walk a fine line between Chinese regulators
and free speech critics ended up being unsustainable. Anticensorship
activists still viewed its compromise as contributing to the spread of
censorship around the world. On the other hand, the compromise was also
unacceptable to Chinese authorities, who were unhappy that Google
wasn’t censoring as heavily as Baidu. Last year Google came under a
series of attacks in the state-run media for failing to censor porn
adequately when users—horror of horrors—typed smutty phrases into the
search box.

As Google considers exactly what it will do next now that it has
refused to censor, some Chinese users are expressing support and
sending flowers, others are upset, and others are thumbing their noses,
good riddance. Competitors are gloating. Google is in for a rough few
months ahead. In the longer run, history will reveal to the Chinese
people who their real friends have been.

Ms. MacKinnon is a fellow with the Open Society Institute. She is writing a book about China and the Internet.

Categories: 未分类
  1. 静蓉
    2010年01月14日 at 7:33 pm


  2. Crytek
    2010年01月15日 at 1:22 am

    赞分析, 小妹你越来越有深度了!

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