The Globalization of Censorship

These days, greed and fear often trump companies’ commitment to free speech.

Item 1: When it appears in the coming months, look carefully through Yale University Press’ new book The Cartoons That Shook the World. It is a scholarly account of the controversy that surrounded a Danish newspaper’s 2005 publication of 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The author, Jytte Klausen, argues, among other things, that the controversy was manipulated by Danish imams who showed their followers false, sexually offensive depictions of Mohammed alongside the real ones, which were not inherently offensive. She consulted with several Muslim scholars, who agreed. Nevertheless, you will not find the cartoons themselves printed in the finished book.

Item 2: Pick up a copy of the U.S. edition of September’s GQ. Buried deep inside, you will find an article titled “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power,” by Scott Anderson. The article, based on extensive reporting, argues that Russian security services helped create a series of bomb explosions in Moscow in 2000—explosions that were blamed on Chechen terrorists at the time. Read it carefully, for you will not find this article in GQ’s Russian edition. As of this writing, you will not find this article on GQ’s Web site, either: Condé Nast, the media company that owns GQ, has ordered all its magazines and affiliates around the world to refrain from mentioning or promoting this article in any way.

Item 3: If your knowledge of written Chinese characters is up to it, type the word Tiananmen into I am reliably informed (not knowing Chinese myself) that your search will retrieve little or no useful information on this subject, nor will it tell you much about Taiwan or Tibet or democracy. This is not an accident: In 2006, Google agreed to a modicum of censorship in China, in exchange for being allowed to operate there at all.

These three incidents are not identical. Yale’s press refused to print the cartoons because the university fears retaliatory violence on its campus. Condé Nast refused to promote an article on the Russian secret service because it fears loss of Russian advertisers. Google refuses to let its Chinese users search for Tiananmen and other taboo subjects because Google wants to compete against Chinese search engines for a share of the huge Chinese market. All three companies exhibit greatly varying degrees of remorse, from Condé Nast (none) to Yale’s press (a lot) to Google (ambivalent: Google founder Sergey Brin initially argued that the company would at least bring more information to China, if not complete information).

Nevertheless, the three stories lead to one conclusion: In different ways, the Russian government, the Chinese government, and unnamed Islamic terrorists are now capable of placing de facto controls on American companies—something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. In a world that seems more dangerous and less profitable than it did in the past, greed or fear proved stronger than these companies’ commitment to free speech.

By caving in to pressure, they have not made the world a safer place, however, either for themselves or for anyone else. Google’s submission to Chinese censorship in 2006 has not prevented the Chinese government from continuing to harass the company, allegedly for distributing pornography. On the contrary, it may have encouraged China to attempt, quite recently, to force companies to place filters on all computers sold in the country. By the same token, Condé Nast’s climb-down will only encourage Russian companies—many of which are de facto state-owned—to exert pressure on their Western partners, making it harder for others to publish controversial material about Russia in the future. The fact that Yale’s press, one of the most innovative in the country, will not publish the Danish cartoons only makes it harder for others to publish them. (Declaration of interest: I am editing an anthology for YUP and have long admired its commitment to opening Soviet archives.)

In fact, each time an American company caves in to illiberal pressure, the atmosphere is worse for everyone else. Each alteration made in the name of placating an illiberal group or government makes that group or government stronger. What seems a small lapse of integrity now might well loom larger in the future. All these companies are making it much harder for everyone else to continue speaking and publishing freely around the world.

There is no law or edict that can force these companies, or any American companies, to abide by the principles of free speech abroad. But at least it is possible to embarrass them at home. Hence this column.