January 21, 2010

The Digital Wall of China. ~ Insiya Rasiwala-Finn

As I sit here, writing from what seems to be the very edge of the world, my writing place, a dining table by the stormy, winter Pacific Ocean, the tragedies of the past week in our tenuous world seem so far away. The earthquake in Haiti, the prorogation of the Canadian Parliament, the seething factions that are emerging and will continue to voice their hopes during the Vancouver Olympic Games.

Yet, it is all alive and current and I am connected to it all via this enmeshed, fabric we call the Internet. The week’s events have also proven how fortunate I am, we are to live in a place where we do actually have free access to a global internet, one that is truly beyond political and national boundaries, not one barred by a government sponsored curtain of disenabling free speech and free access to information.

For writers and activists, access to information, be it via proliferating social media or more traditional news sources is our lifeblood. It is what keeps us literally and metaphorically wired to each other, allows us to tangibly feel inspired by good works in far places and feel compassion and incite change where we view tragedy and disharmony.

This is why the events that unfolded in China over the past few weeks beg some scrutiny.

On January 12, Google Inc. reported, “In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident–albeit a significant one–was something quite different.”

What Google claims to have observed is that the primary goal of the attackers was to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. According to Google’s blog, only two accounts were accessed, but only information such as the date when an email was created and subject lines of emails – not the content itself – was revealed. Lastly, North America, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appeared to have been routinely accessed by third parties.

These accounts, said Google, “have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers.”

Google has been in China since 2006, and in a testimonial the company made before the Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, the Committee on International Relations, and the United States House of Representatives; Google attempted to outline their logic in launching the Chinese version of Google and the difficulties inherent in their decision to do business in China, when China’s “content restriction” and censorship laws ran counter to Google’s basic values of free speech and free access to information.

Said Elliot Schrage VP of Global Communications, we hope “that Google.cn will make a meaningful – though imperfect – contribution to the overall expansion of access to information in China.”

Obviously, recent events have provoked Google to reevaluate their decision. And while many commentators are scrutinizing the company’s actions and questioning their motives – does this really point to a bigger global debate about freedom of speech or is Google just acting from a place of self-interest and a hope for increased market share on its own terms?

Yet, however you choose to view the situation, here are a few viewpoints to consider.

What can a government controlled restriction lead to but ignorance and a disconnect from the rest of the world?

Former CNN Beijing Bureau Chief, Rebecca MacKinnon, whom I heard on CBC’s Spark – a technology focused show, remembers her days teaching in Hong Kong. Her students from Mainland China, were stunned upon encountering the internet in Hongkong – where it is unrestricted. “They were learning about things that they had no idea existed,” she said.

She is supportive of Google. “If executives at companies like Google conclude that it’s in their self-interest to take a public stand against censorship and unlawful surveillance, and do things that contribute to freedom of information and openness, that is a good thing, whatever their deepest and truest motivations…”

If China’s economic reform programs and its citizens’ entrepreneurial flair continue to benefit millions of Chinese people, isn’t intellectual freedom and the drive for it, inevitable? And doesn’t global economic engagement eventually lead to global intellectual and artistic and cultural exchange? 

And in a world where idealistic Western democratic rhetoric does not match diplomatic practice — at least not yet — Google deserves praise for lobbying for change.

I expect what grows out of such tough conversations will have an impact not only in China, but in Iran and many other authoritarian regimes. And even back here at my dining room table, where I scan my computer screen on the stormy far edge of world.

This Article also appeared in The Vancouver Observer and The Tyee.

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