Ten years ago, an organization such as ours would have to keep a library of books which would have been in almost constant use for fact-checking as well as a library of cross-referenced clippings from back issues for research.
The Romanian example was, of course, one of the most energetic efforts to control the spread of "sensitive" information and comment in modern times. In the end, it did not prevent the revolution of Decem-ber 1989 in which Ceausescu and his wife were shot by a military firing squad.
Our own story is simply that almost everything we would have needed libraries for as recently as a decade ago is available via the Internet. Want to check how to spell Ceausescu's name? Don't bother finding an encyclopedia or an international year-book. Use the Internet. Want to know the last time arms sales to Taiwan were mentioned in the US Congress? Use the Internet. What is the shape of a begonia leaf? -- and yes, this was a real question in our newsroom on Saturday evening. The Internet will tell you.
The key to this cornucopia of information is the search engine and the greatest search engine of them all has to be Google. It is hard to think of any other single tool which has opened up the potential of the Web as a repository of knowledge more than this search engine.
And now China has banned it. Just for good measure they have also banned Altavista -- which, of course, is what everyone used before there was Google. The reason for Beijing's action isn't hard to work out. A recent search for the name of President Jiang Zemin found a total 126,000 mentions of this name, with, at seventh place, Falun Gong's "Exposing the Crimes of Jiang Zemin" Web page and at 14th place the Web site "Slap the evil dictator Jiang Zemin!" which contains a delightful game.[..]
Of course it is not just Jiang's dubious reputation that prompts China's action against Google. We cite this simply because it so readily brings up obvious examples of the kind of thing that the Beijing regime with its desire for Orwellian-style control of information finds intolerable. That it does so is no surprise, that it thinks that such measures can work, that communist despotism can be preserved by making "Slap the evil dictator Jiang Zemin!" harder for Chinese Internet users to find, is bizarre. The lesson of information technology from the printing press to the Internet is that government attempts to control it eventually fail, as the late Romanian dictator found out.
More worrying is the tendency of others in the Web portal business to go along with Beijing's censorship. Yahoo is the most obvious example here, being the highest profile Western portal to sign China's notorious "Public Pledge on Self-discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry," basically an agreement to self-censor content that the Chinese government might not like. This is only supposed to apply to China but we can't help wondering whether this has any connection with the fact that a search for Jiang's name on Yahoo comes up with six results.
China's desire to filter the information available to its citizens limits their access to information that a country so horrendously backward desperately needs. That China should choose ignorance rather than potentially destabilizing progress is nothing new in its sorry history. That Western companies should be so eager to help it is abominable.
Monday, September 9th, 2002
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