Monday, February 06, 2006

Tom Zeller column in NYTimes questions China censorship

February 6, 2006

Internet Lions Turn Paper Tiger in China

The New York Times

LET'S play "What if?"

What if the Chinese authorities didn't simply force Google to exclude
sites like (the Human Rights Watch Web site) and from
the Chinese version of its search engine results, or insist that Yahoo hop
to whenever the government fancied the identity of one of its e-mail
users, as the authorities have done?

What if they also stipulated that the chief executive of any Internet
company doing business in China had to have "Mao Zedong . Luv U 4 Eva"
tattooed across his back? Would the companies leave China?

The scary thing is, one might reasonably chew on that question longer than
this one: What if Chinese law required Internet companies to reveal the
identities of all users who forwarded really bad e-mail jokes, lame chain
letters or any messages containing the terms "free speech," "Tiananmen
Square" or "Super Freak," because such activities carried a 10-year prison

"With all due respect to the memory of Rick James, the king of funk," an
executive might say, "we must abide by the laws of the countries in which
we operate."

And what if . as a mark of good faith for being permitted to do business
in what any rational observer has to admit is now the most tantalizing
Internet and technology market on the planet . an executive from each
company were required to assist, mano a mano, in the beating of an
imprisoned blogger?

Nothing too strenuous, but you would have to make like you meant it.

What if no one had to know? They never would, right?

Yes, it's an all too easy and not entirely fair game to play. The issues
on the ground in China are complex, and there are plenty of people who
believe that Bill Gates is right when he says, as he did last week when
discussing the matter at a Microsoft-sponsored conference in Lisbon, that
"the ability to really withhold information no longer exists."

That is to say, Microsoft or Google may agree to censor this or filter
that, but in the end, censorship is no match for human ingenuity and the
endless ways for the Internet to provide workarounds. "You may be able to
take a very visible Web site and say that something shouldn't be there,"
Mr. Gates said, "but if there is a desire by the population to know
something, it is going to get out."

But even if that's true, Western technology companies have only themselves
to blame if users in the free world quickly ask when Shi Tao, the
journalist whose name Yahoo gave to Chinese authorities and who
subsequently was sentenced to a 10-year prison term, will be released. Or
that people use what-ifs to ponder the moral limits of saying that local
law is local law.

That's partly because it is only recently that any of the players have
made any genuine efforts at transparency in their dealings with China.

Two weeks ago, Google took the bold step of plainly admitting that it was
entering the Chinese market with a censored search product, tweaked
according to government specifications. Then last week, Microsoft
announced new policies that would enable it to honor a government's demand
to shut down a citizen's blog (as happened five weeks ago with a popular
MSN blogger in Beijing) while still keeping the blog visible outside of

But these are small victories, said Julien Pain of the group Reporters
Without Borders, which tracks Internet censorship in China, not least
because the companies "seem now to accept censorship as a given, and have
simply decided to be transparent about it."

Still, to many, it signaled progress.

And yet all four American companies with P.R. baggage in China . Cisco,
Yahoo, Microsoft and now Google . were no-shows at a hearing last
Wednesday of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. At least three of the
companies submitted written statements defending their activities in
China, but their absence only added to their image problem, as headlines
like "Tech Firms Snub Feds" and "Google Stiffs Congressional Caucus"
bounced around the blogosphere.

And thus, the months of what came off as appeasing Beijing and engaging in
mealy-mouthed image management at home seem to have taken a toll . most
recently, and perhaps most pointedly, on Google.

It is telling, to say the least, that the darling of so many technophiles
. which promised to "do no evil" . is now on the receiving end of
spontaneous boycotts, with disillusioned search-lovers looking for
alternatives. These signs of lost innocence also show that the race for
China may soon offer a selling point to companies that don't cooperate
with repressive regimes.

"Today, I know you don't deserve me," wrote one visitor to, a site where users can "break up" with Google and
officially boycott the search giant on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14. "You
betrayed my love and trust. I have been with you for so many years. Now,
we are through! FOREVER. I am gonna hook up with IceRocket."

IceRocket is one of several search alternatives listed at, which is run by a group called Students for a Free
Tibet., a search site developed by several Carnegie Mellon
computer scientists, is another. Clusty proudly states that it "never
censors search results" or excludes material "that would be objectionable
to governments or would be unlawful in unelected, nondemocratic regimes."

In an e-mail message, Mark Cuban, IceRocket's founder, put it more
bluntly: "IceRocket doesn't and won't censor. We index more than one
million Chinese-language blogs. No chance we censor or block anything in
this lifetime."

Even David Pinto, who owns the popular . and wholly apolitical . site, has ceased taking income from Google ads. "I was no
longer comfortable taking money from them," he said. That's the sort of
apple-pie protest that American companies can't ignore.

On Feb. 15, the House subcommittee on Global Human Rights will hold
hearings on the whole topic, and all four companies . Cisco, Yahoo, Google
and Microsoft . are expected to attend, given that the committee, unlike
the caucus, could muster subpoenas if it wanted. The companies will
presumably explain that they can't be dogmatic on censorship when doing
business in China, and that if American Internet companies don't do
business in China, change will never come there.

These are hard arguments to dismiss, but so, too, are the what-ifs. One
that ought to be on the mind of the companies as they come before Congress
might be this: What if, years from now, the Great Firewall of China comes
tumbling down and the full extent of your arrangements with the Chinese
regime becomes known?

"One day, people in China may be able to see the records of conversations
between multinational tech companies and the Chinese authorities," wrote
Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet
and Society at Harvard Law School, in her blog at

"What were the exact terms of the deals? Who made them? In what context
did these conversations take place?" Ms. MacKinnon wrote. "I expect the
revelations won't be too flattering for the companies concerned."


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