Google's logo is seen outside its office in Beijing. If the company were to launch a censored news app in China, it would send a message to other companies and other countries that trading press freedom principles for access to lucrative markets is acceptable. (Reuters/Thomas Peter)
Google's logo is seen outside its office in Beijing. If the company were to launch a censored news app in China, it would send a message to other companies and other countries that trading press freedom principles for access to lucrative markets is acceptable. (Reuters/Thomas Peter)

Google complicity in Chinese censorship could endanger press freedom elsewhere

In 2010, after four years of offering Chinese users a heavily censored version of its search engine, Google decided it would no longer block search results at the request of the Chinese state. “Our objection is to those forces of totalitarianism,” Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, told The New York Times at the time, adding that he hoped that Google’s stance would apply pressure toward “progress and a more open Internet in China.” Today, the internet in China is more closed than ever. Yet, according to a flurry of recent news reports, Google has multiple products poised to launch in the Chinese market: a censored news application, a suite of cloud services, and a search app designed to help the Chinese government block news websites and “blacklist” sensitive queries.

China’s censorship regime extends far beyond the news media. The government censors social media networks and installs spyware on citizens’ phones; it has even banned content that notes a physical resemblance between President Xi and Winnie the Pooh. But if Google were to re-enter China, it would have a “direct impact on press freedom,” Xiao Qiang, a Chinese human rights activist who founded the online news outlet China Digital Times, told CPJ. Not only would the company be directly helping the Chinese government censor news domestically–by filtering its search results to remove news websites the government deems inappropriate–it also would be sending a message to other companies, and other countries, that trading press freedom principles for access to lucrative markets is acceptable.

Molly Roberts, a professor at University of California San Diego and the author of Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall, told CPJ that the re-entering China would be “an admission that the Chinese government ended up ‘winning’ the 2010 Google spat.” The move, Roberts emphasized, could impact the “rules of engagement” that technology companies follow when they do business in authoritarian settings–if Google acquiesces to China’s censorship regime, it would “be easier for other countries to follow suit.”

Since Google exited China, CPJ has documented a steady persecution of journalists and the pervasive censorship of news outlets. In 2016, CPJ revealed that the Chinese social media site Weibo had a 150-member team to help enforce government censorship of news on the platform. And in January, the government promulgated a list of 462 websites and social media handles authorized to provide news; unauthorized journalism is subject to fines. According to CPJ’s annual prison census, China is consistently among the world’s worst jailers of journalists, ranking third worst last year. Although other authoritarian states, from Russia to Iran to Egypt, often go to great lengths to block journalism critical of the state online, China stands in a class of its own. The government has nurtured its own domestic market for internet products–including social media networks, search engines, and news apps–all willing to censor the news. Freedom House has dubbed China the “worst abuser of internet Freedom” for the past three years in a row.

Now, despite its dramatic stand in 2010, Google appears willing to embrace China’s censorship regime in general, and its press censorship apparatus in particular. According to The Intercept, internal company documents describe a proposed Android-search app that would censor news outlets–BBC was named as an example–and “blacklist sensitive queries.” Although Google had kept the project secret, it had apparently reached an advanced stage of development. The company was in talks with Chinese partners to provide local data services; it had demonstrated its capabilities to the Chinese government; and Google CEO Sundar Pichai had personally met with officials to smooth the company’s re-entry. After the Intercept story broke, news of other secretive Google products designed for the Chinese market broke in The Information and on Bloomberg.

Google did not respond to emailed questions from CPJ, and has not commented publicly about its plans for the Chinese market. According to news reports, however, Pichai and Brin addressed an all-staff meeting yesterday after employees circulated a letter, obtained by The New York Times, which raised concerns about the human rights implications of the China expansion. Brin said Google’s work in China requires “a certain set of trade-offs,” while Pichai told the staff Google is “not close to launching a search product in China,” and that the project is in “an exploration stage,” The Wall Street Journal reported. According to The Intercept, Pichai’s comments contradict internal company documents that ordered staff to get the project in a “launch-ready state” and to have it ready to be “brought off the shelf and quickly deployed.”

The Google controversy underscores a longstanding trend: foreign technology companies are under intense pressure to exchange press freedom principles for access to the Chinese market. The history of trade-offs includes: Chinese journalist Shi Tao (a CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner) spent 10 years in prison thanks in part to Yahoo’s decision in 2005 to turn over his emails to the authorities. In 2013, Bloomberg was widely reported to have killed an explosive investigation into corruption at the highest levels of the Chinese government for fear that it could damage its business relationships in China. In 2016, Facebook tried to woo China by developing a censored version of its platform, according to The New York Times. Last year, Apple said it was required by new regulations to remove from its app store virtual private networks (VPNs), a crucial tool that both journalists and news consumers in China relied on to access the internet with a degree of security and freedom. And despite dramatically withdrawing its search engine from China in 2010, Google still offers two apps to the Chinese market, and maintains a robust physical presence there.

On paper, Google has committed itself to a higher set of principles. It is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative, a consortium of corporations and human rights organizations designed to help “companies respect freedom of expression and privacy rights when faced with government pressure.” (CPJ is also a founding member of GNI). GNI members submit to “human rights impact assessments,” and pledge to “avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression,” in business decisions. Google has not responded to questions about how its plans in China fit with those commitments. “All member companies are expected to implement the GNI Principles wherever they operate,” Judith Lichtenberg, GNI executive director, told CPJ, adding that “individual companies need to make their own business decisions.”

For some, Google’s secretive China projects represent a betrayal of those GNI principles. “Google in the past has helped to set up some good standards among the internet technology companies,” Xiao told CPJ. “But this revelation shows that the standard they tried to hold in the past may have collapsed.”

China experts tell CPJ that Google’s re-entry into the Chinese market would not substantially change the press freedom dynamics there–the censorship regime works with or without Google. Still, by integrating its services with the Chinese model, Google risks enabling serious violations beyond censorship. According to Bloomberg, Google is also working to launch cloud services in China, including products like Google Drive and Google Docs. Cynthia Wong, a senior researcher on the internet and human rights at Human Rights Watch, said she is concerned the government could employ such products, which are commonly used by journalists, as a “honey pot” to surveil and even jail reporters and their sources. The state already combs through digital records to find citizens who challenge it: a 2017 investigation by The Wall Street Journal found Chinese authorities routinely use posts from the social media platform WeChat as evidence to prosecute dissent.

Cybersecurity laws in China, which mandate that foreign tech companies store much of their data locally, give the state significant leverage to hoover up that data and use it against reporters. Journalists in China tell CPJ that out of fear of government surveillance they have stopped using the Chinese version of the iCloud since Apple announced this year it would store data locally to comply with Chinese law.

So far, Google has not clarified how it would handle a request for a journalist’s data from the Chinese government, or how much data it would collect from users in general. Graham Webster, the editor of think tank New America’s DigiChina project, raised a number of unanswered questions: “Will the app collect user location data? Will it collect unique identifiers of user devices to provide custom search results?” He told CPJ that Google’s relationship with Chinese law enforcement is a question of particular importance.

Perhaps the most concrete implications of Google’s embrace of China would be felt outside the country, where the norms of online press freedom are still being shaped, and where China is often setting the tempo for global censorship.

Many other authoritarian countries eager to silence the free press do not wield a censorship apparatus as vast as China’s–but they still try to exert pressure on technology platforms to cooperate. A recent report by CPJ, for example, found that Twitter has censored 1.5 million tweets from dozens of journalists at the request of the Turkish government. Although platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have publicly committed to fighting censorship demands, Wong with Human Rights Watch says that, globally, platforms are increasingly bowing to government requests.

Google is the world’s largest search engine with an estimated 90% market share. If it were to agree to completely graft its products to the censored-Chinese version of the internet, “the damage would be global,” Xiao, the Chinese activist and editor, told CPJ. It could embolden authoritarian governments to ratchet up the pressure on already beleaguered technology platforms. Wong, with Human Rights Watch, agrees: “If they are willing to do this for the Chinese why wouldn’t they be asked to do the same by every other government around the world that wants to restrict freedom of the press and access to information?”

China has nearly a billion internet users. Smaller countries have “less bargaining power than China because companies are not as desperately eager to enter their market,” Roberts, the UCSD professor, told CPJ. “So while the potential Google-China partnership might provide a model that other countries might try to emulate, the power imbalance won’t be as stark as in China.”

Although other countries may not be able replicate China’s censorship, it is rapidly exporting elements of the regime. As Samm Sacks, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies wrote in The Atlantic in June, China is working hard to “set the tone for how the rest of the world governs the internet.” Nigeria and Vietnam, for example, have recently replicated China’s data-localization laws to force foreign technology companies to store data inside the country, Sacks reported. This makes it much easier for these governments to obtain journalists’ communications from local servers, avoiding the hurdle of convincing a foreign company to turn over data housed abroad.

In a particularly stark example of Chinese-norm setting online, Beijing has worked closely with the government of Tanzania to develop a domestic censorship apparatus, Sacks reported. CPJ noted how a new Tanzanian government directive in June forced bloggers to register with the state and comply with strict censorship rules, “aggressively eroding the diversity and robustness of online media.” Since China is providing a template for other press freedom violations, its relationship with Google takes on a specific significance. “This is a real watershed moment–if Google is not going to take a stand against this kind of censorship, I don’t know what other companies will,” Sarah McKune, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, told CPJ.

Up to this point, many of the major platforms used by journalists–Twitter, Facebook, Instagram–have fallen short of launching bespoke censored versions of their products for the Chinese market. LinkedIn, now owned by Microsoft, is one exception: it launched there in 2014, acknowledging it had bowed to censorship requirements to do so. Almost immediately, it began censoring journalists writing about topics the Chinese government considered politically risky, including references to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

By integrating its services into China’s press censorship apparatus, Xiao says Google risks dealing a major blow to digital press freedoms norms, which are already under siege globally. “This is a major signal to everyone,” he said, “that, under market pressure, you do not need to uphold a basic standard for freedom of information.”