What do oral sex and the Dalai Lama have in common? Neither can be found on the new filtered Google in China and Tibet.
The pact between Google and China's rulers announced in late January means the company has finally succumbed to market pressures, joining Yahoo and Microsoft in limiting the flow of info for China's 100 million-plus Internet users.
Tibet activists the world over have responded by launching a boycott of everyone's favourite search engine. In Toronto recently, supporters of the Dalai Lama gathered at the windwhipped foot of the TD Tower, where Google has a local office, and called on the company to undo the agreement.
Tibet is now a "gagged state," Gompo Dorjee, head of Students for a Free Tibet, tells me, though I can hardly hear him over the shouts of "Don't be evil, don't be evil" as angry demonstrators mock the company's motto.
Indeed, anti-China types are having a field day with Google's high-minded code of conduct. "Being a different kind of company means... making sure that our core values inform our conduct in all aspects of our lives as Google employees," it states.
Core values or no core values, Tibet is now virtually isolated. "All radio stations have been jammed in Tibet," Dorjee says passionately. "The only source of information is published by the government. There are no independent newspapers in Tibet, not a single independent radio source. The Web was very much monitored, but sometimes we did get through accidentally. Now that is gone as well."
The technology required for such fig-leafing will be familiar to those who have checked parental controls on their Web browser or used a spam filter. Unfortunately, as the people of Tibet are finding out, this same technology when applied at the server end of the info flow can be used not only to bowdlerize any sensitive information, but also to completely disrupt connections via e-mail to the diaspora.
Prior to its recent capitulation, Google, unlike Yahoo and Microsoft, maintained an open if sporadic Web flow into China by keeping its servers outside the country. Under the new agreement, its new in-country servers provide a much more reliable flow - but only of censored material.
NOW left several requests for comment at Google's California head office, but no response was forthcoming at press time. However, a company statement puts its dilemma this way: "We aren't happy about what we had to do, and we hope that over time everyone in the world will come to enjoy full access to information. We are convinced that the Internet and its continued development through the efforts of companies like Google will effectively contribute to openness and prosperity in the world."
At present, all Net news about Tibet, Taiwan, the Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square massacre, China's pro-democracy movement and even health info will be sanitized. And sending e-mail critical of corruption among local officials can get you serious time in a Chinese prison. Currently, there are 21 cyber-dissidents in Chinese jails, and and at least one of them was put there by info supplied by Yahoo.
Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang has confirmed his company' s cooperation in the case against Shi Tao, a Chinese reporter jailed for 10 years for criticizing corruption among local officials.
Says Yahoo media relations spokesperson Mary Osako, "All U.S. and international firms operating in China face the same dilemma of complying with laws that lack transparency, and that can have disturbing consequences inconsistent with our own beliefs. These issues are larger than one company or even one industry."
So what is left of the Internet after you've blocked pornography, freedom of expression, health care info and access to most Western media sites, including the BBC and CNN? Propaganda, actually.
A group called OpenNet Initiative illustrates the problem (www.opennetinitiative.net) by showing dual results for searches, on one side of the page those obtained from the standard Google engine, and beside it those from Google.cn. I tried typing in "Falun Dafa" and discovered that while Google offers 1.98 million results in all languages, Google.cn whittles it down to 625. None of these appear to be in Chinese. A limited sampling of them suggests they're all denunciations of the group.
So is it time to start calling it the dis-internet? I hope not. So do Google and its fellow colluders Yahoo and Microsoft. But their Trojan horse argument - just get even a limited version of the Internet into the walled city and eventually its true potential will overflow - cuts both ways.
Just get a little totalitarianism into the Internet and suddenly your Web can be used to catch more flies. Repression, disconnection and moral sex for all.
While the freezing wind nearly rips the "Tibet will be free" placard from one of the demonstrator's hands, it's easy to feel helpless. But as Dorjee explains, Internet users need not be complicit in the policies of the offending search engines. Check the sidebar. Plenty of others would love your business.
Getting beyond GOOGLE