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Collusion and Collision: Searching for Guidance in Chinese Cyberspace

This report was published in conjunction with SecDev

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Searching online should be easy. Type a request into a search engine and the screen lights up with a neat list of what is available on the World Wide Web.

That is not the case in China.

China’s search engines implement and enforce state policy. They allow the past to be rewritten and make inconvenient truths disappear. Social discontent mobilized by local corruption or bureaucratic intransigence is redacted. Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities show up as historically happy subjects of the Chinese state. Little is said about the presence of heavy policing in these regions that has followed recent mass uprisings. Enter “Tiananmen Square” into Baidu, China’s leading search engine, and it becomes just a plaza in Beijing. Much like the memory hole described in George Orwell’s 1984, China’s search engines allow the past to become just as the present requires it to be.

While its constitution upholds the right to free expression and privacy, China maintains strict control over domestic cyberspace. Censorship and surveillance are justi ed as necessary to maintain the social stability and cohesion of its 1.3 billion subjects. The Golden Shield project – an ambitious state cyber security strategy – has spawned an elaborate system that enables pervasive censorship of internet content, requires mandatory registration of new sites, and enforces strict self-policing by China’s online population. Good behavior is expected and bad behavior

is punished. Everyone lives behind the “Great Firewall.”

Western corporations cashing in on the Chinese Information and Communications Technology (ICT) market face dif cult ethical dilemmas. This report focuses mainly on the operations of the

major Western search engines active in China, all of which are U.S.-based. This is because search engines such as those run by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! face the toughest challenges. They are gatekeepers to the vast repository of human knowledge in the information age. They also know a lot about us: our browsing habits, our interests, and increasingly, our social networks and contacts. Entering into the Chinese market as a search engine or social media provider is

an ethical mine eld. In the hands of authorities determined to police their subjects, search engines and social media platforms such as Facebook can become a potent tool of online repression.

Western corporations can act deferentially in concert with Chinese law – which in many cases means effectively helping the government to perpetuate censorship, surveillance and restrictions – or they can ensure that their actions are consistent with their own national laws and international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If the latter is

not possible, they can choose to withdraw from China, as Google did.

The dilemmas faced by Western ICT corporations are not restricted to Chinese cyberspace alone. While China is certainly the most important
case nancially and politically, the complicity of Western companies with internet-related violations of human rights has been occurring in other countries and the caseload is growing fast.

So what is to be done?

Industry plays a uniquely powerful role when it comes to the internet. Companies – not (necessarily) governments — own cyberspace. They are well-positioned to undertake voluntary commitments that encourage better behavior. But when this doesn’t work, governments have a responsibility to provide guidance, which may also require legislation.

To do nothing is bad for business and bad for democracy. Inaction undermines the values of openness, access to knowledge, individual privacy and informed choice. It threatens the future of the internet and diminishes its value as a driver of global development and prosperity.

Government, industry and key stakeholders should work together to nd feasible solutions to the challenges of balancing ethics and economics in the internet world. Solutions will come from reining in opportunism and encouraging responsibility, transparency, and accountability.

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