Pictures of the Iranian uprising remind me of images which escaped Tiananmen. I’m not sure if this is because I lack reference points or because the twentieth anniversary has recently passed, but my thoughts have been on the past as I watch the present unfold. Certainly there are some parallels: both involve people demanding more democratic freedoms; both involve brutal and violent suppression; both have the government scrambling to prevent pictorial evidence from reaching the outside world.
Earlier in the week Nicholas D. Kristoff wrote a quick blurb about Bing, a new search engine and all-around lifestyle centerpiece courtesy of Microsoft. Searches conducted on Bing in simplified Chinese yielded censored results for politically sensitive topics. If this was the case only in China that would make sense– it’s the cost of doing business– but searches in Chinese from any country would only reveal carefully restricted information. Critics immediately attacked Bing’s search results and Microsoft claimed this was nothing more than a bug.
Regardless of whether Microsoft had intended the apparent censorship or not is immaterial– they’re dancing with the devil. Is it really worse for a company to agree to regulate search results in a language instead of just one country? As western companies clamber to capitalize on the Chinese middle class we’re going to see more questionable ethics and poor rationalizations, such as Google’s decision to set up shop. They claim it’s better to offer what services are allowed than no service at all, but they’ll accept every penny of ad revenue entitled to them. Censorship be damned. Falun Gong be damned. Tibet be damned. Environment be damned. Sweatshops be damned.
At best we can hope the companies suffer grievously from their involvement with a repressive regime. Earlier in the week Google was temporarily shut down inside China after being criticized for allowing pornographic material to reach the masses. Word came down the command chain to scale back, the lights went out for an hour, and right now I’m sure busy teams of coders are cutting links to porn in twelve hour shifts. Even if the secondary theory, that this temporary shut-down is a diversion while the deadline for mandatory Green Dam installation on PCs nears, Google still has to pay the price for conducting business in a repressive state.
Snickering at the corporate suffering doesn’t actually matter. Boycott Google? It’s crossed my mind. Not the easiest cause to push because it’s such a popular tool it’s become a verb. No one looks anything up on-line, they google it. I google for information daily– I’m using it right now. I tried to search for information on Bing and it didn’t come up with anything, or if it did it’s buried pages deep where angels fear to tread. Yahoo suffers as well, although I appreciate that they find Anxiety Neurosis more often than Google. But it’s crap and when you’re searching for information you want the best information you can find.
After Iran expelled foreign journalists and began firing on protesters in the street members of the Senate have pushed for legislation to help Iranians circumvent internet blockades. McCain, Lieberman and Lindsay Graham want to provide people with the technological means to access uncensored information without the threat of surveillance by their government. They also plan to increase the reach and time allotted broadcasts in Farsi by American run or supported radio stations operating in the region. Meanwhile we pick our nose while China once again flays anyone’s attempts to do the same.