Congress, Search Engines and China

By Eric Goldman

OPEN LETTER TO THE MEMBERS OF THE CONGRESSIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS CAUCUS

Dear Caucus members,

Like you, I do not like the fact that search engines are helping China effectuate its repressive policies. However, I am confused why you are targeting the search engines. If you really think this is a big deal, shouldn’t you be TAKING IT UP WITH CHINA?

Here’s the way I see it. You, as members of Congress, are among the most powerful people in the world. You have a wide variety of very powerful tools in your toolkit. If you don’t like a country’s policies, you can:

* send envoys to the country and ask them to change;

* negotiate treaties where the country agrees to change; and

* even impose economic or other sanctions as punishment for failing to change.

Given those powers, you are uniquely positioned to get China to change if you think it needs to do so.

Admittedly, effectuating those changes in China is hard. First, there’s always an uncomfortable subtext when we go around telling countries that they should adopt policies more like ours. But ignoring that (as we should do when it comes to human rights issues), there’s a second and more practical problem. China is a major economic, political and military force that isn’t going to do what we want just because we’re the USA. I don’t blame you for not wanting to tangle with them.

However, instead of pushing China yourself, it appears that you want the search engines to do your dirty work. But the search engines are a lot less powerful than you are, and they have fewer tools in their toolkit than you do. Do you really think search engines can affirmatively get China to unilaterally change its policies? Or that a voluntary boycott by search engines will matter in the least to China? The way I see it, you expect the search engines to undertake a doomed effort and then you’re chastising them for wisely declining that challenge.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m very unhappy when any company helps a repressive regime implement its censorship policies. But I’m even unhappier when my elected officials avoid doing the hard work necessary to make real change and, instead, hold a grandstanding publicity stunt as their way of making faux progress.

Signed,

An Unimpressed Constituent

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