Google's threats are too little, too late

Action over China is long overdue

There are roughly 1.3 billion people living in China, not one of whom is likely to be able to read this blog. That's got less to do with whether Google opts to pull out of China, and more to do with the "Great Firewall of China" in particular, as well as the Chinese regime's lack of respect for freedom of speech in general.

Nevertheless, it must be getting ever more difficult for Google to defend its decision to operate in China, and in so doing comply with Beijing's insistence that the search-engine giant, too, censor the search results that the people of China are able to see.

Indeed, Google's decision to open an office in China made it a mere pawn in Beijing's attempts to repress free speech. No surprise that the move to operate in China was widely criticised when first announced. One must wonder whether, if the company had been around during South Africa's apartheid years -- in which successive Pretoria governments censored books, magazines and other literature they deemed destabilising -- Google would have gone into business there, even if this had involved helping to enforce such restrictions, thereby assisting suppression of freedom of speech and the anti-apartheid movement.

So, that Google is threatening to pull out of China -- only now, and only after heavy cyberattacks on Google and 30 other Silicon Valley firms -- will do little to reassure civil liberties campaigners. They justifiably argue that the company, in its dealings with China so far, has done little more than put profits above all else.

Google's involvement in China began not when it opened operations there in 2006, but when it bought a 2.6 per cent stake in China's leading search engine, Baidu, back in 2004. At the time, it looked as though Google's plan was to buy the Chinese company outright in advance of its public flotation. Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, met with Li Yanhong, Baidu's chairman, in July 2005. Some believe he was keen to acquire Baidu rather than produce a Chinese-language version of the Google search engine, which it didn't have at that time.

But, for whatever reason, Google decided to go it alone in China, and in June 2006 it offloaded its stake in Baidu (making about a $50m profit) as it ramped up its own activities there. That meant, of course, agreeing to co-operate with the government's censorship mandate, the "Great Firewall of China".

Google has not been the only offender. In June 2006 the NGO Reporters Without Borders carried out tests of what was being filtered not just by Google, but also by Baidu, Yahoo.cn and Microsoft's MSN. It found Yahoo.cn to be censoring results as stringently as the local Baidu, and also contradicted Microsoft's claims that it was not applying any special filters to MSN searches in China.

Unease

To be fair, Google did not have an easy decision to make when considering its attitude to the Chinese search market. Baidu, Microsoft, Yahoo and others were all actively going after it, and with China home to the largest internet market by users, at more than 350 million, it is one with enormous potential. The search-engine market in China was estimated to be worth in the region of $300m in the third quarter of 2009, up almost 40 per cent year-on-year.

It's clear that Google agonised over its decision, too. Back in 2006, the Associated Press reported Sergey Brin, the Google co-founder, as having "acknowledged . . . the dominant internet company has compromised its principles by accommodating Chinese censorship demands. He said Google is wrestling to make the deal work before deciding whether to reverse course."

But neither the fact that it has not been the only firm playing ball with Chinese censorship demands, nor whether it agonised internally over the decision, should have made it acceptable for a company to put its own profits ahead of the freedoms of more than a billion people.

At the very least, Google could have come out in support of the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC), which pushed the US administration to launch a trade dispute with China over its internet censorship. It gained only limited support from the search-engine industry.

A Google spokesman said his company "supported the idea that censorship should be seen as a trade barrier and should be included in negotiations, but added that it did not have an official position on the CFAC petition", according to the Financial Times.

So while news that Google is now going to take action to ensure that its content is not censored in China -- a move that will almost certainly lead to its withdrawal from the Chinese market -- is welcome, it shouldn't have got itself into this mess in the first place. Perhaps it's time for Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and the other search-engine players to make a united stand against Chinese censorship.

It may not be a battle they can win today. But, for the rights of those 1.3 billion citizens who won't be able to read this blog, it's one battle from which they must not walk away.

Jason Stamper is the New Statesman technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review

 

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Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.