THAT SPARKLING adage of the digital age that “information will set you free” turns out to carry a giant asterisk. Authoritarian regimes have figured out how to control digital space, put firewalls around their countries and send violators to prison. The largest digital police state today is China, and that is reason enough for Google to abandon its work on development of a search app for China that would censor results about human rights, democracy, religion, peaceful protest and other ticklish topics for the ruling Communist Party.
The Intercept, which broke the story, said that a small team of Google workers has been engineering an Android search app for China that would “blacklist websites and search terms” to satisfy China’s strict censorship. China’s control of news, messages and information is vast and ranges from instructions to news media about what to report, to pressure on academic journals and book publishers about what to print, to surveillance of social media for posts that might touch third-rail topics prohibited by the party, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. China’s “Great Firewall” is a mammoth cordon around its digital universe that is a nanny to hundreds of millions of users, letting them access only content approved by the state. Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter and news sites such as the BBC and the New York Times are blocked. China is also actively demanding that companies that do business there follow its laws and regulations, which are often aimed at repressing free speech, free association and other rights, while permitting the state unparalleled surveillance.
Google, founded with the admonition “don’t be evil,” made a smart decision in 2010 to pull out of China because of the pervasive censorship. Now, the company is feeling the pull of a market of more than 750 million Internet users, a potentially lucrative source of revenue, though President Trump’s current trade dispute with China is apparently slowing down Google’s negotiations. Google has started tiptoeing back into China with a file management app, establishment of an artificial-intelligence research center, and launching of a game on the widely used WeChat platform. According to the Intercept, the driving force is chief executive Sundar Pichai, who said at a June 2016 conference in Southern California: “I care about servicing users globally in every corner. Google is for everyone. We want to be in China serving Chinese users.”
The dangers are plain: A censored search app will put Google’s imprimatur on the largest and most pervasive authoritarian system in the world, making Google an accomplice to repression. The censored search app would no doubt whet the appetite of autocrats elsewhere, and it would mark a terrible setback for those apostles of freedom who predicted the digital revolution would be a new era of liberty. The app would also sunder the faith of many Google users that the company is a force for good.