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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Globalization of Censorship

September 15, 2009

These days, greed and fear often trump companies' commitment to free speech.
By Anne Applebaum

Slate - Sept. 14, 2009

Item 1: When it appears in the coming months, look carefully through Yale
University Press' new book The Cartoons That Shook the World. It is a
scholarly account of the controversy that surrounded a Danish newspaper's
2005 publication of 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The author,
Jytte Klausen, argues, among other things, that the controversy was
manipulated by Danish imams who showed their followers false, sexually
offensive depictions of Mohammed alongside the real ones, which were not
inherently offensive. She consulted with several Muslim scholars, who
agreed. Nevertheless, you will not find the cartoons themselves printed in
the finished book.

Item 2: Pick up a copy of the U.S. edition of September's GQ. Buried deep
inside, you will find an article titled "Vladimir Putin's Dark Rise to
Power," by Scott Anderson. The article, based on extensive reporting, argues
that Russian security services helped create a series of bomb explosions in
Moscow in 2000-explosions that were blamed on Chechen terrorists at the
time. Read it carefully, for you will not find this article in GQ's Russian
edition. As of this writing, you will not find this article on GQ's Web
site, either: Condé Nast, the media company that owns GQ, has ordered all
its magazines and affiliates around the world to refrain from mentioning or
promoting this article in any way.

Item 3: If your knowledge of written Chinese characters is up to it, type
the word Tiananmen into Google.cn. I am reliably informed (not knowing
Chinese myself) that your search will retrieve little or no useful
information on this subject, nor will it tell you much about Taiwan or Tibet
or democracy. This is not an accident: In 2006, Google agreed to a modicum
of censorship in China, in exchange for being allowed to operate there at
all.

These three incidents are not identical. Yale's press refused to print the
cartoons because the university fears retaliatory violence on its campus.
Condé Nast refused to promote an article on the Russian secret service
because it fears loss of Russian advertisers. Google refuses to let its
Chinese users search for Tiananmen and other taboo subjects because Google
wants to compete against Chinese search engines for a share of the huge
Chinese market. All three companies exhibit greatly varying degrees of
remorse, from Condé Nast (none) to Yale's press (a lot) to Google
(ambivalent: Google founder Sergey Brin initially argued that the company
would at least bring more information to China, if not complete
information).

Nevertheless, the three stories lead to one conclusion: In different ways,
the Russian government, the Chinese government, and unnamed Islamic
terrorists are now capable of placing de facto controls on American
companies-something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. In a
world that seems more dangerous and less profitable than it did in the past,
greed or fear proved stronger than these companies' commitment to free
speech.

Shortly after Yale University Press announced it would not publish the
Danish cartoons in The Cartoons That Shook the World, Christopher Hitchens
criticized the university's decision. Grady Hendrix discussed this summer's
Chinese blockbuster movies, and in 2002 Dahlia Lithwick looked at wartime
censorship following Sept. 11.

By caving in to pressure, they have not made the world a safer place,
however, either for themselves or for anyone else. Google's submission to
Chinese censorship in 2006 has not prevented the Chinese government from
continuing to harass the company, allegedly for distributing pornography. On
the contrary, it may have encouraged China to attempt, quite recently, to
force companies to place filters on all computers sold in the country. By
the same token, Condé Nast's climb-down will only encourage Russian
companies-many of which are de facto state-owned-to exert pressure on their
Western partners, making it harder for others to publish controversial
material about Russia in the future. The fact that Yale's press, one of the
most innovative in the country, will not publish the Danish cartoons only
makes it harder for others to publish them. (Declaration of interest: I am
editing an anthology for YUP and have long admired its commitment to opening
Soviet archives.)

In fact, each time an American company caves in to illiberal pressure, the
atmosphere is worse for everyone else. Each alteration made in the name of
placating an illiberal group or government makes that group or government
stronger. What seems a small lapse of integrity now might well loom larger
in the future. All these companies are making it much harder for everyone
else to continue speaking and publishing freely around the world.

There is no law or edict that can force these companies, or any American
companies, to abide by the principles of free speech abroad. But at least it
is possible to embarrass them at home. Hence this column.
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