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The Chinese government’s extensive – and now well-known – system of online surveillance and censorship enables it to squelch websites deemed “subversive” and find their creators – punishing activists with prison terms, and thereby crimping the public’s access to information.

Over the past four years, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières), an international watchdog group dedicated to defending journalists and dissidents, has criticized such tech giants as Yahoo and Microsoft for aiding and abetting China’s restrictive policies by offering sanitized versions of their content in that country.

Last month, the group took Google to task for its decision to launch a Chinese version of its search-engine that’s cleansed of politically sensitive references to topics such as Tibet, Tiananmen Square, and democracy. Indeed, in a statement on January 25, the group called the launch of Google.cn a “black day for freedom of expression in China.”

Peter Fairley, a Technology Review contributing writer based in Paris, spoke recently with Julien Pain, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Internet Freedom desk.

Technology Review: Unlike the other tech firms in your crosshairs, who seem to have ignored your letters and reports, Google acknowledged your concerns about their decision to abide by China’s censorship policy. Did anything positive come from that dialogue?

Julien Pain: I think the way they launched their service shows Google was well aware of the problems. What Google did is better than what Yahoo and others agreed to. But it’s still a bad decision, which will have consequences for freedom of expression. Google was the last search engine accessible in China that refused to apply censorship. Until now they at least listed the banned websites.

TR: Chinese Web users could previously discover a banned site using Google and then access it using a “proxy” site masking their true location, correct?

JP: Right. The problem [now that Google will be censored as well] is they won’t know it’s there. If you set up a website from outside China to talk about human rights or democracy, or whatever, there’s no way you can get an audience. It’s like tossing a bottle into the sea. You just throw your content onto the Internet and, without uncensored search engines, there will be no way for an Internet user in China to find it.

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