America’s Online Censors

America’s Online Censors

Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems are under fire from Congress for helping China censor and prosecute political dissidents. But a proposed law to guide technology companies doing business abroad raises troubling questions for Internet users everywhere.


Back in the late 1990s, when I was working as a journalist in China, I happened to read Timothy Garton Ash’s The File. It’s a personal account about what happened in East Germany soon after the Berlin wall fell, when East Germans were suddenly able to access their Stasi police files. As it turned out, secret police informants included neighbors, lovers, spouses and in some cases even people’s own children. One evening over dinner with some Chinese friends, I described the book and asked how they thought things might play out in a post-Communist China. One friend replied: “That day will come in China too. Then I’ll know who my real friends are.” The table fell silent.

Today China’s leaders are fighting hard not to follow their East German and Soviet counterparts into the dustbin of history. Newspaper and magazine editors who have dared to publish stories exposing government lies and abuses of power have recently been sacked. Behind-the-scenes accounts of the sackings, defiant statements by the sacked editors and reproductions of the offending articles have spread like viruses all over the Chinese Internet. Chinese censors, enlisting the help of private Internet companies–both domestic and foreign–have been working overtime to remove the offending content. But they simply can’t keep up with the viral spread of information in cyberspace.

The question is not whether the Chinese Communist Party will succeed in hanging on to power. The real question is, For how long? A few years? A few decades? Another half-century?

When change comes, will the new Chinese democrats thank companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Cisco for bringing them the Internet as a catalyst for freedom? Or will they curse them for helping a corrupt and unaccountable regime hang on to power longer than it might have, thus ruining a lot of lives that might otherwise not have been ruined? Will the Chinese thank the American people for their support? Or will they mutter under their breath about hypocrites who talked a big game about freedom and democracy–but who weren’t willing to forego a cent of profit to help non-Americans realize those ideals?

On February 15, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Cisco were called on the carpet in a Congressional hearing for aiding and abetting Chinese government efforts to censor the Internet, monitor its citizens and suppress dissent online. Representative Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, asked executives of some of the world’s most powerful companies how they can possibly sleep at night. All four responded with variations on the following theme: The Chinese people are still better off because US companies engage with the Chinese market and connect China to the global Internet. They’re doing their best to do the right thing, but it’s impossible to keep your hands completely clean in a place like China. You still have to follow Chinese laws and regulations even if Chinese law enforcement is rather less accountable than back home.

It’s important to be clear–as many members of Congress at the hearings did not appear to be–that these four companies have all made different choices about their business practices in China. They fall at very different points along an “evil scale.” Here’s how they shake down:

§ Cisco

sells routers with censorship capability built into them, but the same technology is necessary to protect computer networks from viruses. It remains unclear exactly how much training and service Cisco knowingly provides to Chinese customers whose primary intent is to censor political speech. But meanwhile, it does acknowledge selling surveillance technologies directly to the Chinese Public Security Bureau and other law-enforcement bodies in a country where law enforcement is well documented to commit rampant human rights abuses. Cisco’s excuse? Selling communications technology to these organizations is not against US law. If I were a Chinese dissident, I’d be grateful that Cisco had helped bring the Internet to China, but I’d also be outraged that Cisco may have helped the cops keep me under surveillance and catch me trying to organize protest activities.

§ Microsoft

provides instant messaging and Hotmail (hosted on servers outside China so it doesn’t have to hand over data), as well as a Chinese version of MSN Spaces, which it censors in accordance with Chinese government requirements. So when Chinese blogger Zhao Jing wrote in support of fired newspaper editors in December, his blog got deleted. Now MSN has refined its censorship so that censored blogs only get blocked to Internet users inside China, while people in the rest of the world can still access the sites. Chinese bloggers report that a number of bloggers who have been writing in support of Freezing Point, a periodical that was recently shut down, have had their blogs censored by MSN. Zhao, one of the censored bloggers, wrote that while he’s angry about the censorship, he still thinks that the majority of Chinese bloggers are better off with MSN Spaces than without it.

§ Yahoo!

has a Chinese-language portal hosted inside China, with a search engine that filters out all websites and keywords deemed unacceptable by Chinese authorities. It does not inform users that the content is being censored in any way. Yahoo! also offers a Chinese-language e-mail service hosted on computer servers inside the People’s Republic. Because the user data is under Chinese legal jurisdiction, Yahoo! is obligated to comply with Chinese police requests to hand over information. Such compliance over the past several years has led to the jailing of at least three dissidents. If I were one of those people or their loved ones, I would never forgive Yahoo!.

§ Google

in January rolled out a new censored search engine, Some Chinese bloggers have mockingly called it the “eunuch” or “neutered” Google. However, Google executives point out that the site notifies users that their search results are censored, and that the uncensored remains accessible to Chinese. They also say they have decided not to provide Chinese e-mail or blog-hosting services in order to avoid putting themselves in the position that Yahoo! and Microsoft have found themselves in. If I were a Chinese user, I would give Google serious points for considering the human rights implications of its business decisions, and for trying hard to be as transparent and honest with the user as possible while still attempting to have a viable business in the People’s Republic. I would not be happy, though, that Google has helped to legitimize political censorship as an accepted business practice.

What do Chinese Internet users think? From reading the reaction of Chinese blogs over the past several weeks and talking to my friends back in China, it’s pretty clear that most Chinese Internet users are indeed glad that Google searches remain available in China and that MSN Spaces still makes blogging so easy. But Yahoo! is taking a beating. Blogger Zhao Jing wrote: “A company such as Yahoo! which gives up information is unforgivable. It would be for the good of the Chinese netizens if such a company could be shut down or get out of China forever.”

Immediately after the House hearings, draft legislation for the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006 was introduced in the House by New Jersey Republican Christopher Smith, with Tom Lantos as co-sponsor. The act aims to make it illegal for US companies to enable the suppression of online speech in China and in other countries where governments are not democratically accountable. It includes provisions that would forbid the storage of user data on servers inside China, would make it illegal to sell equipment or services to law enforcement agencies in countries like China and would enable victims of Yahoo!’s police collaboration to sue Yahoo! in US court. The specifics of these provisions will need to be substantially fine-tuned in order to insure that US companies can behave more ethically while not straitjacketing them to the point that they are unable to function. Representatives of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! have all said they welcome US government action that would level the playing field and give them an excuse to give Chinese authorities for not complying with certain requests. If they are serious, they will work with Congress to shape these provisions so that they can not only pass but be possible to implement and enforce.

However, other provisions in the bill leave a lot of Americans and Chinese scratching their heads. The bill would require US Internet companies to hand over all lists of forbidden words provided to them by “any foreign official of an Internet-restricting country” (as defined by the US State Department) to a specially created US Office of Global Internet Freedom. It would also require these companies to report all content deleted or blocked at the request of such a government to the same government office. Free speech groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have pointed out that this would place US Internet companies in the position of acting as informers to the US government about actions of a foreign government. It also would result in handing over Chinese user information to the US government, which raises the question: Why should Chinese users be expected to trust the US government with their information, when many Americans don’t trust their government with personal data? Why should Google hand over information on Chinese users to the US government when it is fighting requests from the US Department of Justice for data on its own citizens? Aren’t we better off setting global standards to protect all users from all governments everywhere?

Chinese bloggers were encouraged by the Congressional hearings because they called attention to the evil effects of corporate censorship, surveillance and police collaboration. But they also found the hearings to be patronizing–based on the presumption that Americans have the power to change the Chinese political system if only we can pass enough laws. To quote Zhao Jing again: “The bill to be submitted about freedom of Internet information treats the freedom of Chinese Internet users as a slave girl to be dressed as you please.”

We must not allow American companies to deprive Zhao and his generation of their right to shape their country’s political future. But we must do it in a way that shows we respect the rights of the Chinese people–and the rights of every human being on the planet–as much as we respect our own.

Not only is this just the right thing to do: It will also increase the chances that future Chinese regimes will actually be friendly toward the United States, because the population voting them into office might actually stand a chance of being convinced that American people do care about something beyond our self-interest.

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