The battle between the US and China is heating up. The stakes are high, having both pride and money on the line. It’s a classic showdown reminiscent of old times.
It looks like 1995, that is, in that a search engine war is just heating up. This one is between google and baidu, the Chinese search engine that rose to dominate the Chinese market after google pulled out in 2010 rather than comply with censorship laws. Google is reversing that decision in a strategic business operation which will leverage …
… oh, who am I kidding. Google is selling out bigtime and crawling back to China. Wow.
Like everything which passes for news today, this started out as a leak through suspicious sources. The Intercept first published the story a week ago based on some internal, confidential documents they obtained that were confirmed by unnamed sources. Journalism today is just wonderful.
The story has not been confirmed or denied by google, but there has been a reaction in China. That generally means a confirmation, reading between the lines, so we know this is real. Seriously, that’s how journalism works. Baidu, the search engine that came to dominate China in their absence, said that “Chinese tech companies have already taken the lead… The whole world is copying from China.”
This is, of course, all about national pride at some point.
Speaking of national pride, the documents suggest that google is indeed going to completely cave in to government censorship, disallowing all references to human rights, resistance, and so on. A test bed was apparently developed, nicknamed “Maotai” after the incredibly strong poteen-like liquor known as Baiju.
In other words, take a strong drink but be sure you don’t taste it.
This is an important development for a lot of reasons. First of all, the world is going to be connected no matter what and it is ultimately foolish to try to stop it. Second of all, governments are going to control what they can’t stop, if at all possible, and the amount of money involved in international trade is such that big companies will indeed swallow their pride to comply.
Lastly, China is rising, but you already knew that one.
It’s easy to criticize google for caving in so blatantly, as I just did by coloring that sentence the way I did. This has to feel bad. But in the long run, a China with google is going to be a tiny bit more open than a China without it. Things will get through once in a while, probably more than ever get through the obsequious Baidu. Competition between the two will highlight the relationships between our cultures and spark curiosity. It’s better to be there than to not be there.
Still, this is how it’s going at this moment. Nation states still dictate the rules on their turf, despite the enormous pressures to be global. The strain is still building over this, and it’s not clear how it will be revealed.
For now, google and parent company Alphabet will be competing in a world of Hanzi characters and Chinese rules. We live in interesting times.
I agree. And here’s a radical thought. Internet spaces have to obey real-world laws. The idea that they could run everywhere on US laws and norms, because other countries would be too naive or too accepting or too powerless to challenge that, has had its time.
China and the EU already have elaborate laws that they demand the internet firms obey in their jurisdiction, which the EU chillingly interprets as anything pertaining to its citizens. India may follow suit. The Muslim world, carrying less favor with the West, takes a more blunt censorship approach. As long as the US tech firms treat this reality as an inconvenience of doing business overseas, they’re heading straight into regional fragmentation.
There is an alternative. If we want the internet firms to operate globally with some level of people’s rights and good governance, we need to recognize them as diplomatic entities. The virtual spaces of Google, Facebook, and the like need to be seen not as private property but as extra-territorial spaces similar to ships at sea. A new chapter of international law needs to be agreed for their governance and their relations with states. The US could, if it was less of a corporate machine, lead the creation of this legal framework in an enlightened way.
Such a bargain would include rights and safeguards for the people participating, and yes it would include censorship. Nearly every country on Earth has censorship and nearly everyone is in favor of it. Free speech is about defending speech that you disapprove of, but few people think like Voltaire (and apparently he didn’t either). Societies just differ on why and to what degree they restrict speech.
In the West we see censorship as a tool of a tyrant. We assume it’s there to crush dissent, and if only there was free speech the tyrant would fall. Much of the world is not like that. China claims they’re putting social cohesion ahead of individual rights. Muslim societies legitimately see religious insults as a form of assault. Europe is in the process of legislating an absurdist level of privacy protection, while the always pragmatic US chooses to apply censorship to police intellectual property rights.
The time for a mature discussion on communication, its norms, rights, and limits is now and it’s better to have that discussion openly and globally than in each national niche.