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Democracy would suffer if Google left China, says MIT panel

By Fred O'Connor
April 29, 2010 02:04 PM ET

IDG News Service - Analyzing the quarrel between Google and China raises questions of how the Web helps an oppressed country develop democracy, according to participants in an MIT panel discussion.

"The search engine has become an important tool to help the central government become more transparent," said panelist Xiaojian Zhao, a Chinese journalist studying at MIT on a fellowship, during the discussion Wednesday. "The search engine will aid Chinese democracy."

Yasheng Huang, China program professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, agreed, but went a step further, saying that the Internet has fostered freedom and transparency in China more than the combination of foreign aid, the rise of the middle class and other economic growth factors.

"Google leaving China undermines that process," Huang said.

The clamor began last December when Google claimed that Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists were targeted by hackers using malware and phishing scams, while some accounts were breached. While no evidence has been uncovered to indisputably prove that claim, the Chinese government is widely believed to have sponsored the attacks.

Google reacted to the security issues in early January, stopping the censoring of its search results in China. The Chinese government mandated censorship as a condition of Google operating its search services there. In a blog post announcing its decision, Google said that it was reevaluating its Chinese business and realized that disobeying the government may force it to exit the country. To provide unrestricted search, Google redirected users from its Chinese Web site to its Hong Kong search engine.

Chinese Web users can access the country's top search engine, Baidu, but Huang said he does not trust the site because money influences its rankings. Since Google stopped filtering its results, instead of Baidu's top three results being paid rankings, the top 10 results are now paid, he said.

Ultimately, Google and China's dispute is a conflict between the Internet's basic premise of unrestricted access and the government's desire for control.

"The Internet was born on unfettered access, a strong value behind freedom," Huang said. "China has a different set of values, there is an emphasis on control."

And increasing levels of dissent among China's population have motivated the government to further tighten the Internet, said Craig Simons, a journalist who covered China for 10 years and is studying at MIT on a fellowship. The number of protests against the government over pollution and social conditions has increased as people use the Web to communicate by e-mail, blogs and bulletin boards, Simon said. This led hackers to target e-mail accounts of dissenters, he said.

"There is a massive liberalization at the bottom so the government is tightening controls at the top," Simons said. "The government has taken the position that they need to take control of content on the Internet."

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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