Google has withdrawn from China, arguing that it is no longer willing to design its search engine to block information that the Chinese government does not wish its citizens to have. In liberal democracies around the world, this decision has generally been greeted with enthusiasm.
But in one of those liberal democracies, Australia, the government recently said that it would legislate to block access to some websites. The prohibited material includes child pornography, bestiality, incest, graphic “high-impact” images of violence, anything promoting or providing instruction on crime or violence, detailed descriptions of the use of proscribed drugs, and how-to information on suicide by websites supporting the right to die for the terminally or incurably ill. A readers’ poll in the Sydney Morning Herald showed 96% opposed to those proposed measures, and only 2% in support. More readers voted in this poll than in any previous poll shown on the newspaper’s website, and the result is the most one-sided.
The internet, like the steam engine, is a technological breakthrough that changed the world. Today, if you have an internet connection, you have at your fingertips an amount of information previously available only to those with access to the world’s greatest libraries – indeed, in most respects what is available through the internet dwarfs those libraries, and it is incomparably easier to find what you need. Remarkably, this came about with no central planning, no governing body, and no overall control, other than a system for allocating the names of websites and their addresses.
That something so significant could spring up independently of governments and big business led many to believe that the internet can bring the world a new type of freedom. It is as if an inherently decentralised and individualist technology had realised an anarchist vision that would have seemed utterly utopian if dreamed up by Peter Kropotkin in the 19th century. That may be why so many people believe so strongly that the internet should be left completely unfettered.
Perhaps because Google has been all about making information more widely available, its collaboration with China’s official internet censors has been seen as a deep betrayal. The hope of internet anarchists was that repressive governments would have only two options: accept the internet with its limitless possibilities of spreading information, or restrict internet access to the ruling elite and turn your back on the 21st century, as North Korea has done.
Reality is more complex. The Chinese government was never going to cave in to Google’s demand that it abandon internet censorship. The authorities will no doubt find ways of replacing the services that Google provided – at some cost, and maybe with some loss of efficiency, but the internet will remain fettered in China.
Nevertheless, the more important point is that Google is no longer lending its imprimatur to political censorship. Predictably, some accuse Google of seeking to impose its own values on a foreign culture. Nonsense. Google is entitled to choose how and with whom it does business.