Never glad confident morning again!

googcuffs.jpgEthan Zuckerman has been sleuthing to understand the inner workings of Google’s system to censor search results on its new China site.  The details are unlikely to be interesting to everyone, but Google cannot relish the prospect of public discussions, in excruciating detail, of the machinery they have built to collaborate with repressive Chinese censorship:  

Basically, it looks like two things are going on here: certain sites
are simply so controversial, Google.cn won’t offer links to them.
inurl: searches reveal that pages exist, but results won’t let you see
them, and site: searches give you the same result as if you searched
for a nonexistent domain. (There’s a slight difference – search for a
non-existent domain and you don’t get the message that certain results
may be removed…) Use a particularly controversial keyword
(falun gong, taishi – though not tibet or democracy) and you’re forced
into a search only of pages hosted in China… generally pages approved
by the government. (Search for “falun gong” on Google.cn for an example of the sorts of “impartial” content this turns up…)

Whether you think that Google’s decision was a commercial necessity, a foot in the door by providing more information in China, or a betrayal of its founding values, it is hard not to feel that Google is a different company today.

I see that Blogger News Network has decided to discontinue using Google Ads, and they list some other blogs that have made the same decision.  (This would be a bit more convincing if the blog were not hosted by Blogger, which is owned by, ahem, Google. Update: I got this wrong. Blogger News Network are not hosted by Blogger – see the comments below.  I don’t run ads on this site, but if I did, I wouldn’t run Google ads any more.

In case you are wondering about the title of this post, it is from Robert Browning’s poem, The Lost Leader. Browning wrote it when William Wordsworth abandoned his radical politics to become Poet Laureate "for a handful of silver". It is well worth reading in this context:

The Lost Leader

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
  Just for a riband to stick in his coat–
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
  Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
  So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
  Rags–were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
  Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
  Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
  Burns, Shelley, were with us,–they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the free-men,
  –He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!

We shall march prospering,–not thro’ his presence;
  Songs may inspirit us,–not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done,–while he boasts his quiescence,
  Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
  One task more declined, one more foot-path untrod,
One more devils’-triumph and sorrow for angels,
  One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!
Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!
  There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,
Forced praise on our part–the glimmer of twilight,
  Never glad confident morning again!
Best fight on well, for we taught him–strike gallantly,
  Menace our heart ere we master his own;
Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
  Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne!

     — Robert Browning

9 thoughts on “Never glad confident morning again!”

  1. So, why does Google get all this flack?  MS and Yahoo have been in China and censoring completely for years.  Google runs an uncensored chinese language service at the dotcom, and an openly censored version that informs the user at the .cn   MSN and Yahoo aren’t getting any flack for censoring and not informing the users, but Google get slated for censoring and informing the users?  I have many many concerns about Google, but this isn’t one of them.  I genuinely think that openly announcing to users they’re being censored is a good thing, not a bad one. 

  2. Thanks for linking to our story on our decision to withdraw from Google AdSense. Just for the record, we are not hosted on Blogspot; we have our own hosting and own our own domain. We use the Blogger tool to compose and edit posts.

  3. Matt

    You ask a good question. I think the problem is hypocrisy – the gap between the image they want us to have of them ("do no evil") and the reality of corporate greed.  

    I don’t use MSN partly because I don’t like Microsoft. I used to like Google because they weren’t like all the others, or so I believed.  

    Owen 

  4. I don’t agree with these attacks on Google. 

    The best policy for dealing with authoritarian states which impose censorship and other illiberal restrictions on their citizens is almost always to encourage them to open up by maximising their contacts with the outside world, not by boycotting them and increasing their citizens’ isolation.  In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, there were valiant and eventually successful efforts by the west, including the western media, to encourage dialogue with the Soviet leadership and with as many ordinary Soviet people as it was possible to reach, including official visits to the west.  All these contacts were subjected to severe restrictions and censorship by the KGB and other organs of repression, but eventually they helped to build a critical mass of public opinion in the USSR that had gained some knowledge and experience, however limited and controlled, of what was happening in the outside world, and this led to increasing questions about why the Soviet people were being prevented from enjoying the same freedoms.  No-one, to the best of my knowledge, damned western media and other bodies such as the British Council for fostering these contacts even though it entailed accepting KGB restrictions and censorship.

    I see no material difference between that situation and the position of Google in China today.  Indeed, the argument for continuing to encourage contacts between Chinese people and the outside world is even stronger than it was during most of the Soviet era in the USSR because the process of opening up China to the outside world is much more advanced, and continuing at a much faster pace, than was the case in the USSR until Gorbachev appeared on the scene at five minutes before the eleventh hour.  Moreover the internet, even when subjected to inherently objectionable censorship and restrictions, is a new and potent instrument for fostering contact and for breaking down barriers, and it would be crazy not to make the maximum possible use of it to encourage China to emerge from its antique totalitarian régime.

    I shall continue to use Google with a clear conscience.

    Brian

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  6. I’m gonna continue using Google Adsense because I think it’s a good system. I’m not exactly sure how I feel about the Chinese situation, though I think Google’s argument is reasonable. Whether they are right or wrong is the kind of question that may not be answerable for another 20 or 30 years.

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