While working in China in the late 1990s, I happened to read Timothy Garton Ash’s The File. In East Germany after the Berlin wall fell, East Germans were suddenly able to access their Stasi police files. Police informants included neighbors, lovers, spouses and even people’s own children. After I described the book to Chinese friends, one remarked: “That day will come in China too. Then I’ll know who my real friends are.”
Today China’s leaders are fighting hard not to follow their East German and Soviet counterparts into the dustbin of history. Chinese censors, enlisting the help of private Internet companies–both domestic and foreign–have been working overtime to block and remove content that challenges the Chinese Communist Party’s authority. But they 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; it’s: For how long? And when change comes, will Chinese people thank companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Cisco for bringing them the Internet as a catalyst for freedom, or will they curse them for having helped a corrupt and unaccountable regime hold power longer than it might have? Will they mutter about hypocrites who talked a big game about freedom and democracy–but who weren’t willing to forgo a cent of profit to help non-Americans realize those ideals?
In February Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Cisco were called on the carpet in a Congressional hearing for aiding Chinese government efforts to censor the Internet, monitor its citizens and suppress dissent online. Cisco sells high-tech communications systems, including surveillance systems, to the Chinese police. Yahoo! offers a heavily censored Chinese search engine. It has turned over to the police e-mail account information on at least three dissidents, from a service hosted on computer servers inside China. Microsoft heavily censors blogs of Chinese users on MSN spaces. Google has rolled out a politically sanitized Chinese search engine (although unlike Yahoo! it notifies users that it is censoring). It has opted not to offer Chinese-language e-mail and blogging services to avoid the predicaments of Yahoo! and Microsoft.
Efforts are now under way to make it illegal for US companies to help the Chinese government suppress free speech. Draft legislation for the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006 includes provisions that would forbid 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. These things all make sense. But other provisions are misguided. The act 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 State Department) to a specially created US government office. It would also require companies to report all content deleted or blocked at the request of the host government to the same government office. This would put US companies in a tough position in foreign markets if they are perceived to be US government stooges–which this act would in effect require them to be. The act would also result in US companies handing over Chinese user information to the US government. Why would we ask companies to do that, when many Americans don’t trust the government with our own personal data? Aren’t we better off setting global standards to protect all users from all governments everywhere?
Some Chinese bloggers were encouraged by the Congressional hearings because they called attention to the evil effects of corporate censorship, surveillance and police collaboration. But some also found them patronizing. Blogger Zhao Jing wrote: “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 shouldn’t allow US firms to act in ways that contradict fundamental American values. But we must act in a way that respects the rights of people in other countries as much as we respect our own rights. The Global Online Freedom Act of 2006 is the beginning of a conversation about what needs to be done. But in its current form, it shouldn’t be the last word.