"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
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There was a delicious moment on PBS' 'Lehrer News Hour' on January 25th.
The segment was run by correspondent Jeff Brown, and concerned an announcement from Google about its policy in China . Only 8% of Chinese have Internet access, but that's still 100 million people, so it's a huge market for the search-engine company, which it has decided to exploit by providing new Chinese-language facilities, see google.cn. So far, so well and good.
Trouble is, the company has decided to go along with the PRC Government's Internet censorship policy. I learned from Brown's interview with Rebecca MacKinnon of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society - who speaks Mandarin and has made a particular study of the subject - that since forever, the Peking Pols (or the Beijing Brutes, if you prefer) have employed hundreds of Internet censors for years, sniffing out web sites they do not want their subjects to access; and then ordering all Chinese ISPs to block those URLs.
So if a student in Xian were to want to learn more about the riot in Tienanmen Square and heard of a Singapore website with information, odds are he would not get through. The judgment about whether its contents are valuable or not is taken from the enquirer and retained by his rulers. He will never know what he doesn't know.
That's what censorship does; whether it's managed by the leaders of the People's Republic or by the Department of Justice or the Nazi propaganda Ministry or the Roman Catholic Church, which in 1559 published an index of prohibited books in the vain hope of helping suppress the Reformation. (Ironically, one can access info about that index via google.cn.)
In the typically bland phraseology of PBS, "In return for blocking politically sensitive terms, Google gains access to the world's No. 2 Internet market" - but that's not quite true. Any Chinese resident with Net access has been able to reach Google since it started; except that of course, he would need to know English. And hitherto, all censorship responsibility has been that of the government censors, not of Google; hence, if a site were prohibited by the Pols, a surfer would learn that fact after Google had led him there, and would know exactly whom to blame. He would at least know that a source of information existed, from which his rulers were excluding him. That fact is a really valuable thing to know, and stimulates the obvious question, "Why don't they want me to see this?" On such questions are revolutions built.
But now, to "gain access" - or rather to gain more access, with Chinese hosting - Google has become one of the PRC's voluntary censors. That Xian student will now see that Google can find what, 40,000 references to Tienanmen Square but only 13,000 of them are listed and accessible. A footnote on the search screen will tell him the other links are not provided, so as to "conform with local laws"! Perhaps that's what they meant by a "yellow running-dog."
Google was quoted on the 'News Hour' as responding that this pre-censorship would provide their users with "a more satisfactory Internet experience" in that they would not be led, by the search engine, to a site that was blocked by the primary censors; that is, they would not waste time. Thus was this California company, which a mere few years ago was started by two very bright and entrepreneurial young Americans, interposing itself to judge which was more important to a Chinese enquirer: knowledge (even partial knowledge, as above) or time. Time is money, of course; but is not knowledge something close to life itself?
Interviewee MacKinnon was asked about any wider significance of the Google policy and it was during her reply that I observed the aforementioned "delicious moment." She said that in order to implement it, the company had had to set up substantial resources, of software and personnel and management, and that those resources "might be used . . ." - and here she hesitated, with a perfectly straight face and apparently searching for the correct phrase. I immediately shouted at the TV screen, "IN AMERICA !" but alas, that device is built for only one-way communication. So she never heard me, and continued ". . . in other places."
I wonder how many others were shouting, as I did, at their TV screens at that moment? And I wonder if there will ever be anything we, too, will not know that we don't know?