The motto of next year’s Olympic games in China is “one world, one dream.” Online, the world is actually split up into several countries, each with their own limited view, made possible through national censorship of the web. Human Rights Watch asks:
How will China’s pervasive censorship and control of domestic and international media and the Internet play out when thousands of international journalists descend on Beijing? How are the Olympic Games being used to justify the violent forced evictions of thousands of people from their homes? (...) Human Rights Watch hopes that the 2008 Olympics will be an impetus for China to demonstrate greater respect for the human rights guaranteed to all under international law.
You got one answer right there on Google when you compare the search results for the query china olympics: the page I quoted from above is available on Google.com’s Chinese search engine, but censored on Google.cn.
Certainly, this example is arbitrary... because whatever Human Rights Watch writes will be censored in Google China, completely automated. And certainly, it’s an English query, and many Chinese will query in Chinese. But you’ll be hitting on these censored queries in Chinese too: I just translated “olympics criticism” into Chinese using Google’s translator, and there’s again a self-censored result in the top 10 (per Google’s own disclosure, which reads “据当地法律法规和政策，部分搜索结果未予显示” – along the lines of “in compliance with local laws or regulations, some search results are missing"; you can find further validation by following up with a site-query for the domain you suspect to be censored, e.g. site:news.bbc.co.uk). Arbitrary as the example may be, you can be sure that there’s tens of thousands to millions of “missing” results for Chinese users on Google everyday. Because we often consult search engines in times where we want to learn something, a missing piece of knowledge can shape our thinking and have real-life consequences. Many Chinese users, thankfully, will be too smart to fully trust Google.cn results at this point.
Google claims they have 100 different means to rank a website – PageRank just being one of many –, and out of 7 million pages, Google’s algorithm decided that the Human Rights Watch page in question belongs into the top 10 for the query china olympics (even though it’s dangerous for any Chinese webmaster to link to this page, which can have the effect of downranking it almost “naturally”). But there’s a single thing which can overrule any of those 100 fine-tuned algorithms: a single government decision.
Google’s Eric Schmidt argues that engagement will bring improvement – but these are just overgeneralizations. Some engagement can have horrible consequences (IBM “engaged” in Nazi Germany by providing machines that were specifically tailored to register racial data among the population, even at a time when the Nazis delivered openly anti-Semite statements – in fact, even at a time when it was illegal per US law for US businesses to engage in Germany), while other engagement might bring improvements. So instead of such statements, Google should give people specifics. For starters, which “local laws or regulations” does HRW.org violate, justifying that its around 46,300 pages indexed in international Google are censored by Google China? When webmasters find their site banned, they can file a reinclusion request with Google; but where do I file my request if I suspect my site to be banned not due to cloaking or hidden links, but due to government-critical statements? (Is it good SEO in China to not speak critical of my government – are there any Google webmaster guidelines as to what may get you removed?) And who at Google is responsible for making the decisions which censorship requests are acceptable and which aren’t – or does Google accept every censorship request in China (and other countries where there are self-censored results)?