China, Free Speech, Google, Internet

China, GYM, and Stephen Colbert

How do I lump these three things together? Truthiness. Let me explain.

I’ve been trying to figure out where I stand on Google’s entry into China (and have written about similar dilemnas and my personal experience in China here and here). My initial gut instinct was that Google was wrong to do this, particularly in light of their “do no evil” aspirations. But I found the very adult commentary from both Doc Searls and Dr. Weinberberger (whose writings I admire but neither of whom I know personally) on this topic compelling. So I thought about it some more.

Their position is also advanced today by Bill Gates.

The essential argument from Searls, Weinberger, Gates and probably Sergey Brin is this: the world is a messy place, we are continually faced with difficult moral dilemnas for which there are rarely perfectly moral answers, and on balance engagement with China is better than the alternatives. More specifically, both Gates and Brin would probably argue this particular form of engagement is likely to increase, not decrease, the amount and scope of information available to Chinese internet users.

But then there is this. The reality does not meet the rhetoric or our hopes. If you are in China, you still can’t search about Falun Gong, Tiannamen Square, Tibet or Taiwan with any hope of really getting something that is objectively close to the truth. Nor can you expect to write about those subjects truthfully. The government simply won’t allow that to happen. Indeed, Google, Yahoo! and MSN have all complied with the Chinese government’s request to ensure that you can’t do this. And other folks like Cisco have worked hard to help them built the Great Wall in case those guys don’t filter things out.

Which leads us to truthiness. With these types of bargains with folks like MSN, Yahoo and Google, the Chinese government can continue to argue and proclaim they are “liberalizing” and inreasing the openness of their society. And Yahoo!, Google and MSN can argue that they are not doing something immoral, or wrong, but that instead that they’re helping to open up China and Chinese society by “engaging.” They all — the Chinese government and GYM —
get to engage in some truthiness. The appeal and logic of “engagement”
seems and feels true — so long as you ignore the reality and the facts. The facts are that GYM are providing services and technology that help the Chinese government
restrict and repress free speech, especially political speech. Which makes this example of truthiness that much more delicious — because they all essentially argue that by abetting in repression in the short-term they’ll liberate in the long-run!

The world is complex and full of moral mixed outcomes, but there must remain things we won’t do — even for vast sums of money. As I’ve asked before, what would we make of now of IBM arguing that their engagement with Nazi Germany in the 1930s was proper? In this particular case, I am increasingly of the opinion that GYM and Cisco have crossed the line. But like Searls and Weinberger, I could be wrong.


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