To what extent does the internet transcend the lie of the land' Such a question arises directly ' and indeed, sinisterly ' from Google launching a special Chinese version, Google.cn, of its search engine a few days ago. The advance of modernity seems to be bringing together nation-states, multinationals, markets and the internet in increasingly complex networks of power and knowledge. And what is at stake here are two mighty principles, profit and democracy ' rather profit versus democracy, in this particular case. China has always made a systematic, comprehensive and increasingly successful effort to constrain and police the ability of its citizens to access and post online material that the state considers 'sensitive'. This keeps in place a sophisticated, extensive and almost entirely untransparent filtering regime, propped up by law and technology, a matrix of controls that stifles access to information judged illegitimate by the authorities.
What the Chinese version of Google represents, therefore, is the company's implicit collusion with this regime. It will impose self-censorship on Google while operating within China, including removing politically sensitive results from searches. However, users will at least be told that they have been denied access and can still search through Google.com if they want to (or if the heavily controlled technology of their country, including watchful cyber-caf's, allows them to). Words and phrases that can trigger pages to be blocked in China or removed from search results are the three Ts ' Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen ' and the two Cs ' Cults like the Falun Gong and anything critical of the Communist Party. The pillars of Western, capitalist liberalism ' the BBC, Amnesty and pornography ' are also filtered or blocked as providers of 'unhealthy information'. Interestingly, the only precedents to Google actively assisting governments to limit content are in Germany with sites that deny the Holocaust, in France with those that stir up racial hatred, and in America with copyright infringements.
The paradox in all this is that cyber-control is being imposed on a population, and on a market, the rapid and spectacular burgeoning of which is second only to the United States of America. The country had about 120 million people online at the beginning of the year, with its search-engine market estimated at a little over $150 million a couple of years ago. This puts companies like Google in an ethical quandary. Would it be worth letting go of this vast and growing market for the sake of the company's commitment to the right to information and freedom of expression' Google's apparently high ethical standards are reflected in its motto, 'Don't be evil'. Yet, it has become complicit in the process by which search terms like 'democracy' and 'human rights' will now throw up very different results on the two sides of what is being called the Great Firewall of China.