Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The War Over Words: Why Google's New Approach to China Should Be the Only Approach

January 14, 2010

Josh Schrei
January 13, 2010

Yesterday, Google announced formally what many of us in the human rights
world told them four years ago would happen if they stepped into the ring
with the Chinese government.

It appears that our friends in Beijing, since striking a deal with the
ubiquitous search engine in 2006 -- have been methodically spying on them,
hacking their user accounts, and mining their data, specifically for the
purpose of gathering intelligence on human rights activists and free speech
advocates. In other words, they've been doing exactly what despotic
tyrannical regimes do best. Blatantly violating international standards of
free speech and privacy and spying on people.

This type of ugly sortie into the privacy and freedom of the individual is
not news. As an active campaigner for Tibetan independence, I take it for
granted that my day to day email communications -- along with those of many
of my peers -- are monitored closely. In 2008, The Washington Post published
an article that detailed the sophistication of Chinese attacks on various
human rights groups, including Students for a Free Tibet, in which it was
revealed that we were being targeted with the same advanced Chinese Trojan
Horses and encryption busters used against the Pentagon and the Department
of Defense.

At SFT's New York offices, there are running jokes about the all-too-obvious
surveillance and harassment that goes on. In May of 2008, at the height of
the Olympic Torch Protests, SFT's phone systems were hacked so that all the
lines repeatedly called each other and outgoing calls were impossible. At
the office, its not uncommon to pick up a phone to make an outgoing call,
and -- in addition to the clicks are whooshes that are common to tapped
lines -- actually hear people speaking Chinese on the line. If you want an
idea of the level of monitoring and interference taking place, imagine
waking up regularly to emails sent from your own account, by you, written in
your language, to your lists, with viruses attached... that you didn't

Those of us who live sheltered under an umbrella of due process and relative
freedom can laugh off these types of attacks. I've often said that if the
Chinese government really wants to pay some hack to sit around and do
nothing but read my emails, more power to them.

But in China and Tibet, the consequences are for more dire. Who knows, over
the last several years, exactly how many human rights activists and free
speech advocates have been arrested as a result of the new technologies and
access to user data that companies like google and yahoo have helped the
Chinese government put in place. Surveillance certainly played a huge part
in the recent arrests of Dhondup Wangchen and Liu Xiabo, for example. And as
we continue to monitor the arrest and disappearance of Tibetans, we see a
disproportionate number of dissidents are located and arrested based on
their use of monitored technology.

For years, human rights activists have been told by legislators and business
leaders that the democratic opening of China would be an inevitable by
product of the free flow of capital.

Yesterday's news demonstrates clearly how this already thin equation has
utterly dissolved. Beijing has demonstrated, over and over, that they care
nothing for increased transparency and openness, nor do they have any
interest in allowing the individual to live the type of life promised under
the International Declaration of Human Rights. Quite the opposite, Beijing
is investing huge sums of money into increasing their ability to monitor and
control their citizens. The 2008 Olympics heightened this capacity
exponentially, with a sizable chunk of the overall "security" budget going
to the creation of long-term surveillance capacity. Tibet's Brave New
World -- the period since the March 2008 uprisings -- has seen a huge
increase in surveillance systems in every major monastery, university, and
potential hotpoint.

Beijing's policy of continual increase in surveillance technology is coupled
with a blatant and thuggish disregard for anything related to digital
privacy. They have made it illegal for individuals to register domain names.
They have publicly stated that they would like every computer in China to
have built in Spyware. And they clearly have no qualms about violating
international law when they want access to private email accounts.

Finally, this week, it appears that a major corporate player, Google, has
reached their wit's end with the thuggishness, illegal interference,
harassment, and broken promises. In a blog post that maintains its
professionalism yet can't completely hide the "WTF guys, we tried our to
best to work with you, and you are just repeatedly screwing us" sentiment,
the company said it will no longer play by Beijing's rules. Its about time.

Google's statement may seem long overdue to some. It may seem to others as
straightforward as an isolated business dispute that needs to be resolved. I
say it is the most significant development in the battle for free speech in
a very, very long time. I do not exaggerate when I say that what hangs in
the balance around this issue is.... everything.

To say that free speech, the right of human beings to express themselves as
they see fit without fear of imprisonment or torture or death, is a rare and
precious thing in human history would be to put it mildly. It has been a
long and bloody battle to arrive at the place we are today. How many tens of
thousands of persecuted religious followers, minorities, women, slaves,
philosophers, scientists and free thinkers have been put under the boot, the
blade or the gun for voicing their views? How many thousands more continue
to fight the battle every day, in Iran, in Burma, in Tibet, in the Middle
East, across the African continent... and here at home?

How precious, that we have enshrined this right in a global declaration
signed by all nations. How absolutely vital that we preserve it. How great
the darkness, should we ever forget, should we ever fall back to a place in
which there is no recourse, no voice, no due process, no justice for the
free human being. How great the darkness...

As I write this, we are faced with the spectre of a rising super power that
places no value on individual rights, and who, left to shape the world in
their image, will create something pretty damn frightening. If we truly hold
the value of freedom of speech in the place that it deserves -- as a
delicate flame of light that we as human beings are charged with protecting,
then we can not bend on what that means in day to day practice, even a
little. We cannot bend no matter how much money, or power, or strategic
influence is at stake. Some things are of far more importance.

While I applaud Google for their brave decision, their "discomfort" around
having to censor should have been taken more seriously the first time
around, because there are very few good places such a decision can lead.
Once you go down that road, it will inevitably lead to places of greater
ambiguity, greater ethical dilemma, and greater concern. Luckily, free
thinking minds prevailed, before the unthinkable ( for example, the company
NOT disclosing China's shenanigans in favor of keeping the relationship
strong) happened. Over the next few weeks I encourage the Google-folk to
maintain the firm stance they did yesterday. Bending on these issues is not
an option. Too much is at stake.

Hopefully Google's actions will start to show some US companies -- and our
good President, for that matter -- that they do have influence with the
Chinese, they do have power in that relationship.... and that we can make
change by living according to principle. Moving forward, other companies
MUST follow Google's lead. Restrictions should be put in place on selling
the Chinese government technology, software, or hardware that enables
surveillance and digital privacy invasion. And when Beijing plays foul, in
any circumstance, companies have a responsibility to call them out on it, as
Google has done.

It is easy, in the relative comfort of our modern lives, to forget the
consequences of a few small actions. Censoring a few words here, limiting a
few freedoms there, these are significant actions on the perimeter of what
is quite literally -- along with climate change -- the defining issue of our
time -- whether or not we will live in a free future. The democratizing
power of the internet, a truly profound development in the short span of my
life, can quickly be turned on its head and used as a means to control a
population and as a way to access -- and eliminate -- those undesirables who
think thoughts and write words that are deemed dangerous to power.

Since the very first word was spoken, there has always been a tension
between those who would raise their voice freely and enliven the world
around them, and those who would crush them for it. Freedom truly is a war
over words, and in this battle, the free thinkers struck a well-deserved and
long overdue blow. Keep it up.

Follow Josh Schrei on Twitter:
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank