google.cn > google.com.hk

Google has closed the doors on its search engine in China, following through on its promise to leave unless it was allowed to provide uncensored search results. But, rather than eliminating its filters on google.cn, and risking the arrest of its China-based employees, Google has redirected requests for google.cn to its Hong Kong search engine, google.com.hk, where it maintains unfiltered Chinese-language search results. Shortly after the switch, China was quick to apply its own censoring filters to the Internet DNS servers that feed the country.

Google isn’t alone in its stand against China censorship. This week the popular Web hosting company GoDaddy stopped registering domain names for the .cn domain. The decision came after the Chinese government demanded personal information about people who had purchased domain names from GoDaddy. Both Google and GoDaddy addressed the Congressional-Executive Commission on China this week regarding their dealings with China.

China isn’t the only country where Google censors content based on government-imposed policies. In Thailand and Turkey it censors YouTube videos that mock the country’s leaders. In France and Germany, Google filters out hate speech produced by extremist groups. Google is continuously screening YouTube videos for copyright infringement. Increasingly, Technology companies like Google and Internet service providers are assuming responsibility for policing Internet content. Google’s stance against China’s censorship has shown that the company is clearly uncomfortable with its role as a censor, and causes some to wonder if it may not follow up with changes in policy elsewhere. Google’s chief legal officer wrote that the China issue “goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech.”

Google’s head of policy for Google Australia spoke out against Australian censorship saying that the “government should not have the right to block information which can inform debate on controversial issues,” even if the information is “unpleasant and unpalatable.”

Clearly the responsibility of companies like Google for filtering search results requires serious consideration. As does the company’s responsibility for content posted by users. Recall the Google employees that have been jailed in Italy for hate videos posted on YouTube. Making Internet companies responsible for content posted by users discourages any company from providing online services and will ultimately stifle innovation.

Internet companies are working to find a balance between staying true to share holders and staying true to conscience. If a company filters too strongly, it may be accused of infringing on human rights. If it doesn’t censor enough, it can be imprisoned for aiding criminals. Either way, there is a risk of appearing to behave unethically. Consider Apple’s recent decision to remove thousands of iPhone Apps that showed scantily clothed individuals. Certainly, no laws were being broken by those apps. But Apple felt it necessary to remove them in order to improve its corporate reputation in the eyes of a handful of users that had complained. In so doing it has marred its reputation with others that feel it is too controlling, and standing in the way of basic human rights.

Today’s Internet companies walk a fine line where it is impossible to please all users, so they must opt for satisfying a majority. As citizens of our countries and the Internet, it is up to us to guide our governments in balancing legal power and responsibility for online content between citizens, governments, and commercial enterprises.

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