Will President Barack Obama continue to stand by Google in its dispute with the government of China over its misuse of the Internet for state-sponsored cyber harassment of political dissidents opposed to one-party rule and cyber espionage not only on states perceived as threats to China’s security , but also on the leaders of ethnic minority groups of China such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighur leader, or will he let down Google as he let down the human rights activists after paying some lip sympathy to them?
That is an issue that needs to be closely monitored in the wake of Google’s notice to China on January 12, 2010, that it might be forced to close down its operations in China if Beijing continued to insist on censorship of the results of Google’s search engine in order to deny public access to information about the activities of political dissidents and human rights activists. Google is also reportedly annoyed over the growing Chinese practice of web snooping.
The controls, already being exercised by the Chinese state and particularly its ministry for Public Security over the Internet were further enhanced last month in the so-called interest of national security. “The Internet has become an important avenue through which anti-China forces infiltrate, sabotage and magnify their capabilities for destruction,” wrote Meng Jianzhu, the Minister for Public Security, in the December 1 issue of Qiushi, a magazine published by the Communist Party’s Central Committee. He added: “Therefore it represents a new challenge to the public security authority in maintaining national security and social stability.”
During the widespread disturbances against the government by the Uighurs in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region last year, the protesters and their overseas supporters used the Internet to keep in touch with each other and to disseminate information about the happenings in Xinjiang. The followers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his overseas supporters have also been making similar use of the Internet. The Chinese authorities have also been noting with concern the use of the Internet by political dissidents in Iran to keep up their protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Apart from attacks of disruption allegedly launched by the ministry for public security on servers being used by the dissidents at home and abroad, the ministry has also been trying to forcibly close down individual web sites seeking to propagate alternative or inconvenient points of view by projecting them falsely as pornographic.
A Bill introduced in the US Congress last year by Rep. Chris Smith that sought to impose restrictions on Internet companies doing business in countries that use the Internet for spying or censorship failed to win support. He has promised to revive the Bill in the wake of the Google announcement.
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders group, which has been strongly critical of the Chinese government restrictions on the free use of the Internet, has called upon information technology and internet companies to form a united front to resist the Chinese misuse of the Internet, but the prospects of such a united front even among American companies doing business in China are not very bright. Microsoft has already marked its distance from Google with the following statement: “"We don't have any indication that our corporate network or any of our mail properties were attacked. We work closely with authorities and other technology companies like Google on Internet safety issues, and we will continue to actively monitor this situation."
The Chinese are confident that they will be able to get away with their Internet censorship and misuse not only because there is no unity among Western Internet companies, but also because in the Chinese perception, in the midst of the present economic difficulties, the Obama Administration does not have the political will or even the option to act strongly. The Chinese are, therefore, not unduly concerned over the strong statement of support by Robert Gibbs, a spokesman of the White House, on January 13, 2010, to the position taken up by Google.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.