Bringing the State Back In, Kind of: National and Not-so National Search Engines

Internet Policy Observatory affiliate Sarah Logan discusses pressures on search engines to conform to censorship and filtering measures that are part of states’ ‘national information shaping strategies.’

Earlier this week Russian president Vladimir Putin opined the failure of Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine, to act in the interests of the Russian state. He argued that Yandex had failed in its obligations as a Russian company, not least by having Americans and Europeans on its board. Putin’s statements come following recent initiatives by his government to filter the internet and crack down on bloggers and online news services, moves arguably linked to the Kremlin’s attempt to impose national sovereignty on the internet at the 2012 ITU meeting in Dubai.

Putin’s comments suggest that search engines – along with more obvious measures such as censorship and filtering – play a fundamental role in the policies Diebert and Rohozinski refer to as ‘national information shaping strategies’. Such policies, they write, ‘… emerge from a desire to shape and influence as much as tightly control national and global populations that are increasingly reliant on cyberspace as their main source of information’. As Putin’s comments suggest, search engines and other information curation products, including social networks, are more than gatekeepers: they are windows to a world defined by information. They frame and as a result shape and filter not only events but also narratives and even histories. In fact, some research suggests that individuals trust search engines more than they trust their own judgment.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Chinese government is leading the way in including search engines in its national information shaping strategies. Recent research details the state’s development of its own search engine, Jike. Jike is, rather unsurprisingly, a rather anodyne user experience, and has so far proved unsuccessful in capturing any significant market share. The state seems determined to persist with the experiment, however, and as the leading researcher on the topic notes, Jike ‘…signals a significant state attempt at producing technologies to shape values that deserves critical reflections, particularly when Snowden’s NSA revelations suddenly afforded more legitimacy to government efforts to nationalize information technologies and networks.’ Other states including Turkey, Iran and Kazakhstan have also raised the possibility of developing national search engines.

But what of search engines which by definition participate in ‘national information shaping strategies’ but are not state owned or state run? These companies include Yandex and Baidu, China’s largest search engine. Both must cooperate with state authorities’ requests for information control and both draw the majority of their income from Russian and Chinese markets respectively.  This question is particularly pertinent given the fact that both of these companies have recently expanded internationally. Yandex has expanded into Ukraine, Turkey and Belarus whilst Baidu has expanded to Thailand, Indonesia, Egypt among other places. This expansion thus begs the question: Must companies that participate in ‘national information shaping strategies’ domestically continue to do so when they expand internationally? For example, if Baidu operates in Egypt, does it still censor search results according to the Chinese government’s domestic demands?

This question is difficult to answer conclusively without extensive testing of the relevant search engines in a variety of markets, although the recent controversy over Bing suggests interesting developments. In 2012, Bing featured a controversial cartoon of the disputed Senkaku islands on its homepage, angering Japanese users. The company has similarly been accused of censoring search results related to the South China Sea in in its recently launched Vietnamese search/social hybrid. Such allegations are difficult to prove and are unlikely to be true. However, even without substantial proof, the very possibility of such practices demonstrates the complex interplay between states and private companies in the politics of the internet.

This complexity is not confined to authoritarian governments. Putin’s recent comments described the internet itself as a ‘CIA creation’ and hinted at the dominance of the online world by Americans and American companies as having nefarious origins. This is patently ridiculous, but key internet corporations have been rightly or wrongly closely associated with American foreign policy goals, a position made all the more problematic by Snowden’s revelations. Despite the company’s protestations, Twitter’s decision to delay a network upgrade in Iran in 2009 was perceived as directly assisting US foreign policy goals. Recent unmasking of USAID’s fumbling attempt to create a social network in Cuba is also damaging in this regard. Similarly, the association of American social media companies with public demonstrations and political and social change in the Arab Spring show that the global dominance of US companies in this space brings with it reflections of US foreign policy whether warranted or not. Indeed, some researchers argue that such companies share with the US a focus on the free flow of information as a social and political good which derives from a shared post-Enlightenment heritage: that is, that the relationship between the US and such companies reflects a shared cultural heritage as much as any political directive.

How, then, do we describe the complex relationship between states and internet companies? As domestic or foreign policy? As public diplomacy? Increasing challenges to US companies’ online dominance and the emergence of the next billion internet users means these questions will become increasingly relevant: the state has returned, certainly, but in what form is sometimes unclear.


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