Monday, December 19, 2005

A Free China

To conduct business in China, popular Internet companies Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have had to accommodate a regime that forbids free speech, bars political parties and jails journalists. This means filtering searches on their sites, censoring news and providing evidence in the trials of political dissidents -- or risk having their sites blocked in China. Forced to choose between ignoring the world's hottest market or implicitly endorsing a system of censorship that a recent Harvard study called "the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world," the companies have decided to cooperate.

I’ve blogged before that Yahoo!, Google, et al are providing the means for rebellion while paying lip service to the censorship laws.

Even though Yahoo and Google are not able to link to sites that openly advocate rebellion, they do link to sites where these discussions are taking place in euphemistic code words. Markets are infinitely flexible, they will often obtain the product that the consumer wants, regardless of the heavy-handed tactics of regulation. By providing the means, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Cisco and others are giving the resistance the tools that they need to continue to fight. Think about what the alternatives would be. A government provided search portal that would only contain 'government approved' sites where each web site would have to under-go strict scrutiny before a searcher could find it.

Daniel Solove, at Concurring Opinion, asks:
Should Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft be cooperating? Is business always business? Or should businesses refuse to cooperate with certain foreign legal regimes? If it is acceptable for businesses to cooperate, is there a limit to the level of cooperation that should be provided?

If the products that were produced could only be used to oppress the citizens of China or otherwise harm them, I think that the companies would have some thinking to do. However, should Chinese citizens be restricted from broad access to all of the information that the web holds just because they can’t search the term “Democracy?”

If Yahoo! and Google did withhold their services would Chinese dissidents be able to find information like this?

In Memory of Ms. Liu Hezhen, which Lu Xun wrote in 1926 after warlord forces opened fire on protesters in Beijing and killed one of his students, is a classic of Chinese literature. But why did thousands of people read or post notes in an online forum devoted to the essay last week? A close look suggests an answer that China s governing Communist Party might find disturbing: They were using Lu s essay about the 1926 massacre as a pretext to discuss a more current and politically sensitive event the Dec. 6 police shooting of rural protesters in the southern town of Dongzhou in Guangdong province.

In the 10 days since the shooting, which witnesses said resulted in the deaths of as many as 20 farmers protesting land seizures, the Chinese government has tried to maintain a blackout on the news, barring almost all newspapers and broadcasters from reporting it and ordering major Internet sites to censor any mention of it.

Most Chinese still know nothing of the incident. But it is also clear that many Chinese have already learned about the violence and are finding ways to spread and discuss the news on the Internet, circumventing state controls with e-mail and instant messaging, blogs and bulletin board forums.

Henry, at Crooked Timber, is skeptical (though growing less so) that the Internet can challenge authoritarian regimes, but the fact remains that as long as authoritarians don’t control all of the information they can’t actually control any of it.

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