Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bill Gates enters the Google fray

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has entered the fray of the continuing battle being fought between Internet giant Google and China's censors. In an interview on Monday with ABC television in the US, Gates called the row a "complex issue" and said that companies have to make a choice over obeying local laws or not entering a specific market.

Different countries have different rules on censorship, Gates said, "And so you have got to decide, do you want to obey the laws of the countries you are in or not. If not, you may not end up doing business there." He claimed that "Chinese efforts to censor the Internet have been very limited," and that was "easy to go around it."

The comments were quickly picked up by Xinhua and other Chinese media who capitalized on the views of the Microsoft chairman. But his comments have also earned him criticism. The Daily Telegraph's Beijing correspondent Peter Foster wrote on his blog, "If Internet censorship in China is really so 'limited,' Mr Gates should ask himself why Google arrived at that decision, and why his own government has risked souring relations with its largest trading partner over the issue?"

Preston Gall at Computer World lambastes Gates. "He's wrong." Gall says on his blog, "The Great Firewall of China is not 'very limited;' if it were limited the Chinese government would not bother to spend the amount of time and money it does enforcing Internet censorship."

Scaling the wall

While it is true that "scaling the wall" using a Virtual Proxy Network (VPN) is relatively simple, the truth is that most people in China don't know how to do it. In addition it costs up to $20 per month on top of the monthly fee paid to a Chinese Internet provider. While many companies may invest in the extra expenses for individuals it is often cost prohibitive. Expats on a long term stay might invest in a VPN, but many foreign experts are employed in state owned companies where there is no choice other than to log onto the same slow, and restricted Internet as everyone else.

China talks of an "open" Internet and even that citizen's have freedom of expression written into the constitution. The reality is laughable. China claims its Internet controls are attempts to block violence and pornography. But this does not tally with the types of blocks in place. The IMDb [International Movie Database] for example is just the lasted in a string of western sites blocked by the censors. Google services are almost all inaccessible including things like Google Health and spreadsheets in Google Docs.

Blocking dissent

Most restrictions imposed are more to do with stopping free discussion and so-called dissent. This is the supposed reasoning behind blocks of Facebook, Twitter, blogger, Wordpress et al. If the blocks fail, and citizens push beyond what is deemed acceptable, then the law comes down very hard. Liu Xiaobo was last month jailed for 11 years in jail for circulating his Charter 08 call for greater democracy. He was jailed for the crime of 'subversion'.

Others have been jailed with help from western companies which has in turn earned them much criticism. Yahoo handed information to Chinese authorities which resulted in the jailing of 3 dissidents. In April 2005, Shi Tao, a journalist working for a Chinese newspaper, was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Changsha Intermediate People's Court of Hunan Province, China, for "providing state secrets to foreign entities". The "secrets" were a brief list of censorship orders he sent from a Yahoo! Mail account to the Asia Democracy Forum before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Incident. In December 2003 Li Zhi was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for "inciting subversion". Criticism of Yahoo! intensified in February 2006 when Reporters Without Borders released Chinese court documents stating that Yahoo! had aided Chinese authorities in the case of Li Zhi [Times]. Yahoo was also said to have helped authorities over the arrest and prosecution of Wang Xiaoning who published controversial material online. Such apparent collusion with Chinese has not gone unnoticed, bringing strong criticism from the US congressional panel in 2007.

Google's dichotomy

Google earned criticism when it first set up offices in China. It was seen by many as turning against its mantra "Don't do Evil". Its recent statement over censorship raising issues over human rights have been lauded by many. Bloomberg's David Pauly said only a week ago that Google should be applauded for its comments but must follow through. "It's time someone in the US stopped coddling the Chinese police state. The American government can't, or won't." he said

Today Fox News suggested Google might shut down its search engine within China but maintain research offices. However, Google must tread carefully, not only with its negotiations with Chinese leaders but also with its worldwide users. Maintaining offices in Beijing and compromising with authorities "might be seen as hypocritical, and rightfully so," says Jeff Bertolucci from PC World website. "The company has taken its moral stance. Now it must stand by it," Bertolucci says.

Fighting for scraps

As for Gates, it is clear he is positioning himself for Google's possible departure. While it may win him friends amongst the Chinese press and among the Chinese leadership, it may not win him so many friends back home. The safety of his Internet Explorer browser has already been questioned, and may have had a part to play behind the recent Google hacking attempts. Microsoft's Bing search engine is wallowing way behind Google. Even Baidu, while dominating China, is making little headway outside its borders. 

Yahoo and Bing may hope to clear up if Google clears out. But as long as China's censors don't block Google its search engine will still be available; it will just be hosted outside the PRC. It all comes down to the service. Google's search results are usually better and more relevant, while the others pale in comparison. Just do a search in Google, Bing, Yahoo and Baidu for 'tvnewswatch' to see the difference. Baidu is said to provide better Chinese language based results, but there are still many Chinese speaking fans of Google's search engine and applications. At the end of the day, Microsoft, Yahoo and others will only be fighting over the small scraps left over from Baidu's dominance in the market.

Bloomberg's David Pauly writes, "Google may eventually compromise with China. That would be a shame. Someone in the US has to let the dictatorship know what we stand for. Google slamming the door as it leaves China would be a welcome step."

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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