MELBOURNE – Google has withdrawn from China, arguing that it is no
longer willing to design its search engine to block information that the
Chinese government does not wish its citizens to have. In liberal
democracies around the world, this decision has generally been greeted
But in one of those liberal democracies, Australia, the government
recently said that it would legislate to block access to some Web sites.
The prohibited material includes child pornography, bestiality, incest,
graphic "high impact" images of violence, anything promoting or
providing instruction on crime or violence, detailed descriptions of the
use of proscribed drugs, and how-to information on suicide by Web sites
supporting the right to die for the terminally or incurably ill.
A readers' poll in the Sydney Morning Herald showed 96% opposed to those
proposed measures, and only 2% in support. More readers voted in this
poll than in any previous poll shown on the newspaper's Web site, and
the result is the most one-sided.
The Internet, like the steam engine, is a technological breakthrough
that changed the world. Today, if you have an Internet connection, you
have at your fingertips an amount of information previously available
only to those with access to the world's greatest libraries – indeed, in
most respects what is available through the Internet dwarfs those
libraries, and it is incomparably easier to find what you need.
Remarkably, this came about with no central planning, no governing body,
and no overall control, other than a system for allocating the names of
Web sites and their addresses.
That something so significant could spring up independently of
governments and big business led many to believe that the Internet can
bring the world a new type of freedom. It is as if an inherently
decentralised and individualist technology had realized an anarchist
vision that would have seemed utterly utopian if dreamed up by Peter
Kropotkin in the nineteenth century.
That may be why so many people believe so strongly that the Internet
should be left completely unfettered.
Perhaps because Google has been all about making information more widely
available, its collaboration with China's official Internet censors has
been seen as a deep betrayal. The hope of Internet anarchists was that
repressive governments would have only two options: accept the Internet
with its limitless possibilities of spreading information, or restrict
Internet access to the ruling elite and turn your back on the
twenty-first century, as North Korea has done. Reality is more complex.
The Chinese government was never going to cave in to Google's demand
that it abandon Internet censorship. The authorities will no doubt find
ways of replacing the services that Google provided – at some cost, and
maybe with some loss of efficiency, but the Internet will remain
fettered in China.
Nevertheless, the more important point is that Google is no longer
lending its imprimatur to political censorship.
Predictably, some accuse Google of seeking to impose its own values on a
foreign culture. Nonsense.
Google is entitled to choose how and with whom it does business. One
could just as easily assert that during the period in which Google
filtered its results in China, China was imposing its values on Google.
Google's withdrawal is a decision in accordance with its own values. In
my view, those values are more defensible than the values that lead to
political censorship – and who knows how many Chinese would endorse the
value of open access to information, too, if they had the chance?
Even with censorship, the Internet is a force for change. Last month,
when the governor of China's Hubei province threatened a journalist and
grabbed her recorder after she asked a question about a local scandal,
journalists, lawyers, and academics used the Internet to object.
A Web report critical of the governor's behaviour stayed up for 18 hours
before censors ordered it taken down. By then, however, the news was
already widely dispersed. Likewise, in Cuba, Yoani S‡nchez's blog
Generation Y has broken barriers that conventional media could not.
Although the Cuban government has blocked access to the Web site on
which the blog is posted, it is available around the world in many
languages, and distributed within Cuba on compact disks and flash drives.
The new freedom of expression brought by the Internet goes far beyond
politics. People relate to each other in new ways, posing questions
about how we should respond to people when all that we know about them
is what we have learned through a medium that permits all kinds of
anonymity and deception. We discover new things about what people want
to do and how they want to connect to each other.
Do you live in an isolated village and have unusual hobbies, special
interests, or sexual preferences? You will find someone online with whom
to share them. Can't get to a doctor? You can check your symptoms
online – but can you be sure that the medical Web site you are using is
Technology can be used for good or for bad, and it is too soon to reach
a verdict on the Internet. (In the eighteenth century, who could have
foreseen that the development of the steam engine would have an impact
on earth's climate?) Even if it does not fulfill the anarchist dream of
ending repressive government, we are still only beginning to grasp the
extent of what it will do to the way we live.
PETER SINGER is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and
Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of
Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, One World, The President of Good
and Evil, and editor of In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave.