Nirav Bhatt is an LLM candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
China’s economic progress is coming in leaps and bounds, be it rapid development of infrastructure or moving at a rate much faster than its counterparts. But the recent Google-China controversy raises concerns about whether this will cause major problems for China in the long run. In what is being witnessed as a strong political move, China had asked Google to comply with its national policies of internet censorship or abandon the country.
With such a rigid stance China tightened its grip on the world of online information, effectively forcing Google Inc., the world’s premier information provider, to choose between submitting to Chinese censorship and leaving the world’s largest community of Internet users to its rivals; Google chose to redirect Chinese users to its Hong Kong based site. As reported in an article in the New York Times, Google’s decision may not cause major problems for China right away, but in the longer run, China’s stubborn stance on filtering the flow of information within its borders has the potential to weaken its links to the global economy. Some feel that this may tarnish its image as an authoritarian country that is economically on the move. China’s leaders appear fully aware of their dilemma. But at this stage in China’s history, and given the Communist Party’s determination to maintain absolute rule, they still put political control ahead of all other concerns.
Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China is conducted under a wide variety of laws and administrative regulations. In accordance with these laws, more than sixty Internet regulations have been made by the Chinese government, and censorship systems are vigorously implemented by provincial branches of state-owned ISPs, business companies, and organizations. However, most national laws of China do not apply to the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong or Macau and there are no known cases of the PRC authorities censoring critical political or religious content in those areas. Therefore on March 22, 2010, google.cn was redirected to google.com.hk, effectively doing away with the separate and censored site that had been serving mainland China. David Drummond, senior vice president of Google, stated in the official Google blog that the current circumstances surrounding censorship of the Internet in Mainland China led Google to make such a decision. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region in China with a high level of freedom of speech and expression, and google.com.hk does not censor search results, making it more effective for networking and sharing information with Internet users in mainland China.
Considering these events, will this decision of the Chinese government send a strong signal to the rest of the world? Has the time come for China to introspect whether taking a self centered approach in its policy for multinational corporations like Google, is at the cost of its broader commitments for international trade? While much needs to be seen about the repercussions in the longer run, what is observed here is that there is a need to determine more clearly what constitutes freedom of expression. An inclusion of universally acceptable norms needs to be taken into consideration and there exists a possibility of having a hard law in place, perhaps at the WTO level, to address the issues of censorship, freedom of expression and internet regulation.