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The Great Firewall of China: Internet Companies Censor Material at Chinese Government’s Request

StoryJanuary 27, 2006
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We take a look at why the internet company Google is coming under intense criticism for agreeing to censor material deemed objectionable by the Chinese government and how Yahoo and Microsoft comply with China’s censorship orders. And in the U.S., the internet companies have provided the government with information on users at the Justice Department’s request. We speak with UC Berkeley school of law professor Deirdre Mulligan about the issue of telecom companies working with governments. [includes rush transcript]

The world’s most popular search engine — Google.com — announced this week it was launching a version of its search engine designed specifically for China. But the U.S. company, which is known for its motto “Don’t Be Evil” — is coming under intense criticism for agreeing to censor material deemed objectionable by the Chinese government. The Google controversy comes on the heels of moves by several other major Internet companies to cooperate with governments, both in China and here in the United States.

Microsoft recently blocked the website of a Chinese blogger who wrote about a management purge at a leading Beijing newspaper. And Yahoo went a step further last year by turning over electronic records to the Chinese government that helped convict and jail a dissident journalist named Shi Tao. The Chinese government has sentenced Tao to ten years in jail because he had posted online the copy of a government order barring Chinese media from marking the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. These issues of telecom companies working with governments are not unique to China.

Here in the United States, Yahoo, Microsoft and America Online have all revealed they have complied with subpoenas to provide the government with details on how users are utilizing their search engines. The Justice Department claims it needs the information in order to help the government fight pornography. At least one company, Google, is fighting the subpoena. And the telecom companies may also be connected to the growing controversy over President Bush’s order for the National Security Agency to conduct domestic spy operations.

Last week, Democratic Congressman John Conyers wrote to 20 leading telephone and Internet companies asking if they had cooperated with the government in the domestic surveillance. We asked spokespeople from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to come on the program but they did not respond.

  • Deirdre Mulligan, Director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law. She is the former staff counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss these issues, we’re joined here in San Francisco by Deirdre Mulligan. She’s Director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law. She’s former staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. We asked spokespeople for Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to come on the program, but they didn’t respond. Well, we welcome you, Deirdre Mulligan, to Democracy Now!

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: It’s a pleasure to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Let’s start off with the Great Firewall of China, Google’s announcement and your response.

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Well, I think it’s been very interesting to watch the media response and the congressional response to Google’s actions, Yahoo’s actions, Microsoft’s actions, as they’ve enter the Chinese market. Anybody who chooses to do business there is going to be stuck in a very hard position of trying to figure out how to negotiate a really repressive regime, particularly with respect to civil rights, civil liberties and human rights, while doing business there.

I think it’s important that information companies — the internet has been a boon to China, China’s population. It allows great access to information. It’s been incredibly important for activists, journalists and dissidents on a political side. And so, I think it’s appropriate that they’re receiving extra scrutiny, but I think the companies are feeling really, you know, kind of whipsawed in that they’re trying to open up this market, they’re trying to do it incrementally, and they’re receiving a level of scrutiny that probably others aren’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about what they’ve agreed to do.

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Well, all of them have agreed, basically, to abide by Chinese law. China has a very, very aggressive system of its own for limiting what kind of information folks within the country have access to. As basically as a cost of doing business there, these companies are becoming complicit in Chinese efforts to censor what information their citizens have access to. They’re using filtering technology, which we know from experiences in the U.S., is quite faulty. And so, we saw with Google’s latest rollout that in addition to screening out information that the Chinese government probably demands, they’re also screening out vast troves of information that are probably not controversial, even in China.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain, for example, what is being screened out: words, key words, etc.

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Yeah, well, simple words like “democracy,” “Tiananmen Square,” “Falun Gong.” Many of the things — you know, anything that has to do with kind of political or religious activity that the Chinese government doesn’t want its citizens to know about.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how does it work? If someone in China goes on to Yahoo and writes the word “democracy,” nothing comes up?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Typically, something will come up. But it will be far less than what you would get if you used the Yahoo-based service in the U.S., and dramatically different. You know, you might return 37,000 hits using the U.S. Yahoo version, where if you’re in China, maybe you’ll return seven. But certainly the goal from the perspective of the Chinese government is to make sure that nothing comes back.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask more specifically about what Google is doing in China. Google’s Chinese search engine effectively blocks out thousands of websites, though the results are often haphazard. A search for outlawed spiritual group, Falun Gong, restricts access to some, but not all, websites on the subject.

Journalist Declan McCullough found that Google.cn goes further than similar services from Yahoo and Microsoft by censoring information on teen pregnancy, homosexuality, dating, alcohol and even humor. Google.cn is much more effective at restricting access to information about political dissent within China.

A search for jailed labor leader Yao Fuxin turns up 5,700 results on Google’s China website, compared to 21,000 on its U.S. server. Information on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest is even more severely limited. A search for “Tiananmen mothers” turns up a mere 80 hits in Google.cn, opposed to nearly 28,000 entries about the mothers of the dead and disappeared dissidents on Google.com. A search for ”Tiananmen Papers,” a book outlawed in China, also turns up a mere 80 hits, down from 37,000. Even a search for the term “democracy” yields less than a third of the results on Google.com, compared to — Google.cn compared to Google.com.

So you’ve got something interesting happening, because someone in China, while hits may turn up, obviously, it’s very selective. They may have the sense they are getting everything. But it’s, to say the least, highly skewed, so it’s the illusion of an opening.

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Yeah. I mean, I would say that the Chinese citizens are very savvy to their government activities, and I wouldn’t for a minute think that Chinese citizens who are using Google.cn think that they’re getting a full access to information. And I know that folks who know how to use the internet in China do all different kinds of things to get access to Google’s main site, to Yahoo’s main site, because, you know, they live there. They’re very aware of all of the activities that are taken to limit information access across all media channels.

But I do think there’s an important lesson that Google should adopt from what they do here, at the very least. I think it’s very problematic. These are companies that make their money off of providing access to information and providing people with opportunities to participate in a democratic dialogue, and so I think it’s important that they are held to a higher standard, just as we would hold a newspaper that was going into China, I think, to a higher standard, as far as providing all the news, — right? — not just some skewed version of the news. And it’s important to note that this kind of filtering isn’t just advocacy sites, it’s not just things that are based in China, but it affects news, it affects all sorts of information.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Chinese dissident who was jailed with the help of Yahoo?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Yeah. This is, I think, the most troubling incident to date. So what happened is Chinese officials came to Yahoo in China and asked them to help them identify who had posted this particular government document that was supposedly, you know, supposed to be classified. And, you know, my understanding — news reports have confirmed this — is that Yahoo not only complied with them, but they actually — this information was held not in the Chinese office of Yahoo, but was actually in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has a whole other — you know, there’s this one-state myth — but Hong Kong has its own set of laws about access to this kind of information, so I think it’s quite problematic that information was basically brought over from Hong Kong into China, in order to just be disclosed to Chinese officials. There was quite a bit of — from Yahoo, basically saying that all they were doing was complying with the law. But I think again when you’re providing people with opportunities, encouraging them to speak out, it’s really important that you have policies in place that will protect them when they engage in these actions.

AMY GOODMAN: And he is now jailed for ten years hard labor?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Yeah, he’s serving ten years.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was it that he posted that Yahoo then revealed who it was who put this on the web?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: It was a document that the government claimed to be classified, and the document, it was basically about efforts to censor the news.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, there’s the Chinese blogger, who has been taken off of the — is it Microsoft that has done this?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Yeah. So, Microsoft has apparently — and I don’t know as much about this event — but has apparently restricted this blogger’s access. And I don’t know whether or not they’ve been completely taken off or whether or not their site is no longer available in China. Some of the details of that particular case have been unclear.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Deirdre Mulligan, who is at U.C. Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley — we’re broadcasting from San Francisco today — about the internet companies, what they’re doing in China, and also, what they’re doing here at home. Let’s talk about the role of these companies, and Google now standing up to the U.S. government. What is the request of Google?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Well, the request that the government made was very broad. It was for thousands of searches that are done by users. My understanding is that the companies went to great lengths to make sure that personal information — so your name and address, that kind of information — wasn’t disclosed. It wasn’t requested by the government, but they went to extra steps to make sure that hasn’t been disclosed, to the extent that AOL and Microsoft and Yahoo have complied.

But there is a broad question about what kind of information the government could derive from this otherwise not-identifiable data, the ability to develop patterns, etc. You can think about all the information that went into something like the Total Information Awareness Plan, the notion that we can figure out who the next terrorist is going to be by looking at our travel patterns, etc. And our searches provide an awful lot of information about what we’re interested in, who we’re looking for, what kinds of activities we might be attending, so it is very detailed data. It’s just that it wasn’t tied specifically to an individual.

Now, what’s interesting here is that Google has made, you know, a great effort not just in court, but also in the press, to stand up to this request. They haven’t been trumpeting it as privacy, as much as, you know, concerns about government overreaching, which I think is probably a fairer characterization of this particular effort. I think the most important — there’s two things that make this a really important instance. One is Google is sitting on a ton of data that does identify you — right? — or could be easily used to identify you. And who knows what the next government request is going to be. And this should be a wakeup to legislators.

AMY GOODMAN: Can identify you every time you’ve put in — you search something?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Yeah, it depends upon your relationship with Google, whether or not you have an email account with them, whether or not you have kind of a personalized Google page. So there’s a lot of factors that might go into whether or not they would have information that said, 'Oh, this is Amy Goodman.' But they certainly would be able to do the same kind of tracing that Yahoo was able to do to help officials in China. So using the search terms, using what’s called your internet protocol address, your I.P. address, which is a number that identifies your computer, when it’s hooked up to the internet. So there’s a very high likelihood that they would eventually be able to link lots of data about what you do and what you look for online back to you as an individual. So it’s important to think about where this is going.

The second thing that I think is really striking and significant is the posture that Google has taken here in the U.S., compared to the posture they’re taking in China. Clearly here, Google has stood up and said, 'No, this is overreaching. We're not going to be complicit in the government’s efforts to pry into the search activities of an enormous swath of the population,’ where in China, they’re basically being complicit in government policy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Yahoo and Microsoft have complied with the U.S. government request, and Google is taking them to court?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Yes. And I believe AOL has also responded to their request. I think all of them at this point have made statements about the fact that they didn’t fully comply with their request, that instead of providing actual search terms, they provided representative search terms, which I take to mean that they likely kind of cut down a lot of the search string that might have revealed more of what you were looking for, so trying to kind of narrow the privacy impact of the claim.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the telecom companies complying with President Bush’s spy program?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Yeah. That, I think, is probably the most troubling issue right now domestically. So, the telephone companies deal with the law enforcement apparatus of the United States government all the time. They have incredibly regular relationships. There are wiretaps going on all the time. And they know the rules, and they know that whoever came in and asked them to capture this information wasn’t playing by them. And it’s incredibly problematic that they were complicit in this and remained silent for so long. I mean, this has been going on since 2001. And the fact that not a single telephone company stepped up and complained about this in a way that was public or even, you can imagine, to the intelligence communities of the House or the Senate, I think is just totally shocking.

AMY GOODMAN: And what have they done?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Well, they’ve allowed the government to listen in on or read email communications, voice communications coming from U.S. citizens going outbound for, you know, five years, without any court order, without any understanding that the information was relevant to an investigation, without any sense that this information was — the person on the foreign end of the communication was part of, you know, an active effort to do harm to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what’s happening right now? And how are the telecom companies answering for this?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: Right now, not enough. You know, we know that the Senate Judiciary Committee is going to hold hearings. The Senate and House Intelligence Committees so far have not said that they’re going to hold hearings. Clearly, Congress has not been able to perform its oversight function. The Congressional Research Service issued a report basically saying that the kinds of briefings that have been provided to Congress have made it impossible for them to exercise their constitutional oversight authority.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people do you think knew about this within the telecom companies? Are they just the top executives?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: It’s an interesting question. You know, I would have to believe that at least the head of the legal departments knew about it, you know, their general counsels. But sometimes it can be quite unclear. The wiretaps are going on on an ongoing basis on a whole host of investigations. And the F.B.I., actually, or N.S.A. could position people at the telephone companies — right? — who are then able to kind of be there, and so the level of scrutiny that the telephone companies have over what the government officials who are engaging in listening in have, I’m not clear. I don’t know kind of what the day-to-day practices are. But one would assume, unless the government was completely duplicitous and didn’t even tell the telephone companies what they were doing, that at least the general counsel’s office knew.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s going on right now?

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: And it’s going on right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Deirdre Mulligan, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Deirdre Mulligan is the Director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic and Acting Clinical Professor of Law at U.C. Berkeley School of Law, that’s University of California School of Law at Berkeley. Thank you.

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