In 2004, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben refused to submit passport biodata in 2004 to the United States for his appointment as Visiting Professor at New York University. Resisting the submission of fingerprints required to enter the country as a foreign visitor, Agamben published an article in French newspaper, Le Monde in January 2004 wherein he states:
Electronic filing of finger and retina prints, subcutaneous tattooing, as well as other practices of the same type, are elements that contribute towards defining this threshold. The security reasons that are invoked to justify these measures should not impress us: they have nothing to do with it. History teaches us how practices first reserved for foreigners find themselves applied later to the rest of the citizenry. What is at stake here is nothing less than the new “normal” bio-political relationship between citizens and the state. This relation no longer has anything to do with free and active participation in the public sphere, but concerns the enrollment and the filing away of the most private and incommunicable aspect of subjectivity: I mean the body’s biological life.
Agamben went on to critique similar draconian policies in his 2013 Athens lecture where he discusses the “the primacy of the biological identity over the political identity” which he views as part of the creation of the “normal relationship between the state and its citizens” which “is defined by suspicion, police filing and control.” Agamben questions if such a state can be considered democratic. The easy answer to his query, of course, is no. We have seen in recent years how surveillance presents a distinct principle contradiction of democracy and this question has come back to hit us over and over again in recent years.
From the spying laws being challenged in the United States by Edward Snowden to Snowden’s recent vindication in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which ruled against the UK government’s mass surveillance program, we should all be alarmed by the rising challenges to individual freedoms posed by government surveillance. The latest, of course, was the revelation in August that Google was working with the Chinese government to create a censored search engine in the country. This question of government surveillance must not only be applied to the current metamorphosis of the Global War on Terror in the US post 9/11, but must also be extended to the ways in which private companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter effect their power upon what are democratic institutions such as the freedom of expression and conscience mandated within U.S. and E.U. legislation for starters.
Similarly, we need to query if companies like Google, planning to relaunch its search engine in China replete with censored results to meet the demands of the Chinese government, are complicit in aiding and abetting anti-democratic movements abroad while also testing the limits to its power. For instance, let’s not forget that Google had originally shut down its Chinese search engine in 2010, citing government attempts to “limit free speech on the web.” But after a report from The Intercept demonstrated how this tech giant is hungry to return to the planet’s largest single market for Internet users, we have to wonder what the motivations are beyond the more obvious economic benefits and the possible abuses to even fledgling democratic moves within China.
According to internal documents provided to The Intercept by a whistleblower, Google has developed a censored version of its search engine under the codename “Dragonfly” since the beginning of 2017. This engine is said to “blacklist sensitive queries” and filter out all websites blocked by China’s Internet censors, which include most major western media, Wikipedia, etc. The censorship will extend to Google’s other functions such as image search, spell check, and other specialized search features.
Yet, Google’s Head of Search, Ben Gomes, told the BBC last month that Google didn’t “have any plans to launch something” in China. And Keith Enright, Google’s chief privacy officer, while under questioning from several senators from the Senate Commerce Committee told this committee that it “[was] not sure” if China censored its citizens. But what about Google’s infamous statement in 2010 when it left the country because it learned that the Chinese government had been hacking the Gmail accounts of dissidents while engaging in widespread censorship? Google co-founder, Sergey Brin, even stated at the time, “Our objection is to those forces of totalitarianism.” So which is it? Is Google opposed to anti-democratic processes more or less than its eagerness to tap this multi-billion dollar market?
Then earlier this week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai contradicted both these executives and said quite clearly that Google would “be able to serve well over 99% of the queries” in China. Even after a quick study, it is clear that Google is scrambling for a coherent public message about its reverse in decision to engage with the Chinese government as it uses the pretext of being able to search for “cancer treatments” as the reasons for setting up home in China. But Baidu, China’s number one search engine, gives over 76,800 search results for “cancer treatments for astrocytoma,” for instance. As Patrick Poon, Researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong, told me, “People in China won’t be able to search for information that’s considered sensitive by the Chinese government if Google would agree to the censorship arrangements. That means it won’t be different from Baidu.” So, perhaps there is a bit more at stake than Google is admitting?
What we do know is that between the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) in the UK and Sleepwet in the Netherlands last year, there is a growing legal precedent of governments spying on its citizenry, while expecting private companies like Google and Apple to assist them in the process. The issue of online privacy in the west has been the forefront of many civil liberties groups like Liberty UK, ARTICLE 19, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy & Technology and the ACLU. And privacy issues have been expanded from the individual user and computer to today all forms of technology. Moreover, the issues surrounding privacy have begun to affect children’s rights such that parents are increasingly wary of their child’s safety and are now consulting online privacy and safety guides for children in addition to Google’s toolkit for parents.
While censorship on the surface appears to be the inverse of spying, in reality the two are inextricably linked—especially in China where the “social credit system” was revealed to be part of a larger government spying machinery. More frightening is that your “citizen credit” score improves the more regime-friendly items you purchase (eg. diapers) and lower for the items the regime frowns upon (eg. alcohol). Similarly, your score will decrease with negative commentary on the government. Poon related the importance of understanding how the Chinese government’s Cybersecurity Law enacted on 1 June 2017, demand that Internet companies “comply with many provisions, including censoring content that is considered to ‘endanger national security’… and reporting behaviors of posting such content to the authorities.” It is clear that Google is getting involved in much more than being an arm of China’s censorship mechanisms.
It is imperative that Google remain transparent in its dealings with China and be obliged to explain why it has opted into being China’s latest censorship proxy. We need to hold Google accountable for its involvement in the repression of human rights both domestically and abroad.