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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.