The Censorship Call

The ongoing debate over the censorship of online search results in China begs a question that not enough people are asking: Whose job is it to decide what search results should be censored?

Perhaps it should be the job of the International Spelling and Grammar Police. Maybe they should do something about the fact that when you Google the nonword "automonous," you get something on the order of 28,000 hits. Or the fact that when you Google the grammatically incorrect phrase "laying low," you get more hits (324,000) than you do when you Google the grammatically correct "lying low" (274,000). Maybe our children shouldn't be exposed to such ignorance.

Most of us would probably agree that that would be a little over the top. Is the answer, then, to have no censorship at all? Should the censorship of photographic images be abolished so that Google can serve up any image the sickest mind can create? Most of us would argue that's not the answer, either.

It's probably not too much of a stretch to conclude that someone needs to make the censorship call, and that a society's governing body should be that authority. National governments aren't perfect, but in the world order that's likely to be around for a while, they're what we have to work with.

That brings us to China. You and I want every Chinese citizen to be able to read about the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Falun Gong and the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government disagrees. Who should make the call? U.S. Internet companies? The U.S. government?

We need to get it through our thick, self-righteous heads that it's not our call. Too many of us in the U.S. are taking the position that we should fight censorship, unless it's censorship that we happen to agree with. We need to realize that the hypocrisy of that perspective is lost on no one, including the Chinese people.

A story that we posted on our Web site last week, headlined Google Denies Acting Unlawfully in China," cited a report in the China Business Times that was critical of Google for raising the censorship issue in the first place. The paper said Google is like "an uninvited guest" telling a dinner host "the dishes don't suit his taste, but he's willing to eat them as a show of respect to the host."

Yes, I'm very much aware that China's newspapers are government-controlled. But if you think that sentiment doesn't reflect the way the laobaixing (common people) approach these sorts of things, you don't know China. Don't think for a heartbeat that the generality of the Chinese people wants foreigners coming in and breaking Chinese laws or undermining positions taken by China's government. They may not be crazy about everything their government does, just as we're not crazy about everything ours does. But it's theirs, and they're every bit as proud and patriotic as we are.

As a journalist, I detest the restriction of information access. But part of me is almost glad that the Chinese people don't see a lot of what goes on in our own country. Hopefully they didn't see the obscene posturing of our elected officials earlier this month at a hearing of the House International Relations Committee, when they belittled representatives from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco for abiding by Chinese law in China.

I also detest censorship of opinions. But keeping our arrogance out of the limelight, and avoiding that embarrassment, is an all too compelling argument for an exception.

Don Tennant

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. Contact him at

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