Sunday, February 12, 2006

Pointless outrage.

I've been watching this story for a while, but waiting to blog it until the initial frenzy settled down.

China, a country with a well-documented history of human rights abuses, has imposed some strict censorship rules on its citizens' access to the Internet. China is, simultaneously, under pressure to adopt more democratic political processes. And, of significant interest to companies around the world, China's move toward a market-driven economy has created an opportunity for buying goods from, and selling them to, an enormous population.

That's a complicated mix.

Google, deep in the Internet, has apparently cooperated with Chinese authorities in their censorship of Internet content. That's unfortunate, and is at least a partial repudiation of the company's professed motto, "Don't be evil."

There has been widespread and vocal opposition to Google and to its censorship. Some of the loudest outrage has come from the US Congress, which has criticized the company for "bowing to Beijing."

I'm a believer in the power of the market to effect social change. I was at Berkeley when the movement to divest the University of its holdings in South Africa spread among public and private institutions. That pressure, along with political and other social pressure, eventually led the the dismantling of apartheid as an official policy of the country. Businesses certainly have influence, and ought to use it to advance human rights when they can.

It's unreasonable, though, to expect a business to behave altruistically all the time. This is especially true when other institutions aren't leading the way. There was already plenty of pressure, by ambassadors and individuals, to eliminate apartheid before the divestiture movement began. Businesses supported that pressure, but didn't initiate it.

Google has defended -- or at least explained -- its behavior. I hope that it will do better in the future. I hope that it will help to eliminate censorship and restriction of rights around the world. It has enormous power to do that.

But if there is to be a world-wide movement to eliminate Chinese censorship, it must include the policymakers and governing bodies that wield much more influence than any single company. The US has an enormous trade imbalance with China. We ship lots of raw materials there, and buy back lots of low-cost finished goods. That direct economic support is good for the Chinese people, certainly, but also helps to support the Beijing government.

Congress' demand of Google was, essentially, that it regulate its behavior in China. If Congress expects individual companies to put economic pressure on China, it should show the way. If the regulation of trade is to be a solution, then governments, as well as corporations, need to show how.

Outrage from the floor of the House and Senate are good television, but pointless for directing real change. Asking the private sector to lead the way on a public issue like human rights makes no sense. Sure, let's ask Google to behave better next time. But let's show them how to do it, instead of telling them.


Blogger technologos said...

I absolutely desagree with sceptical attitude towards Senate approach to critically appraise Google's policy. Technologos challenge Google, Yahoo, Microsoft & Cisco with proposal of reaching Universal CyberEthos Law as true consensus during coming hearing at Congress as mode of operating net with ethical conduct and creating a global Internet Noossphere while desengage from corporate competition ratrace as ambitios hightech empires to win Cyberrace to rule as Cyber Tsar or Rat King of technotyrany with Orwell's Newspeak in Red China.

The continium of hearings at the congress with power of subpeanas by Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations
to Investigate US Internet Companies
Operating Procedures in China is a
guaranty to control internet empires

BACKGROUND: For nearly 60 years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has succeeded in manipulating the flow of information and stifling dissenting views. Constantly improving technology and the development of the Internet has challenged the Chinese government’s ability to control news and information dissemination – and more broadly, public opinion. Despite the rapid advancement of the internet, many forms of expression online by individuals and the media remain significantly censored.

According to the OpenNet Initiative, “Compared to similar efforts in other states, China's filtering regime is pervasive, sophisticated, and effective. It comprises multiple levels of legal regulation and technical control. It involves numerous state agencies and thousands of public and private personnel. It censors content transmitted through multiple methods, including Web pages, Web logs, on-line discussion forums, university bulletin board systems, and e-mail messages.” The Congressional Research service notes that the “Chinese government employs increasingly sophisticated methods to limit content online, including a combination of legal regulation, surveillance, and punishment to promote self-censorship, as well as technical controls.”

Many pro-business and pro-democracy observers argue that the expansion of the Internet and trade will result in increased freedom of expression and political openness in China. Yet, despite recognizing that the ability to communicate openly is essential to breaking down the walls of communism and repression, several of the top US internet companies have aided and complied with the Chinese Government’s demand for censorship in order to enter the PRC market, in essence becoming a megaphone for communist propaganda and a tool for controlling public opinion.

WHAT: “The Internet in China: A Tool for Freedom or Suppression?”

Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, Africa and International Operations

U.S. Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), Chairman

WHEN: Wednesday, February 15, 2006
10:00 AM

WHERE: 2172 Rayburn House Office Building

WITNESSES: The hearing will consist of three panels of witnesses.

Panel I
James Keith, State Department Senior Advisor for China and Mongolia
David Gross, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Communications and Information Policy (Economic and Business Affairs Bureau)

Panel II
Mark Chandler, Vice President and General Counsel, Cisco Systems.
Jack Krumholtz, Director, Govt. Affairs and Associate General Counsel, Microsoft

Michael Callahan, General Counsel, Yahoo
Mr. Elliot Schrage, Vice President for Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, Google

Panel III
Lucie Morillon, Head of the Internet Freedom Desk, Reporters Without Borders
Harry Wu, Publisher, China Information Center

Libby Liu, President, Radio Free Asia
Xiao Qiang, Director, China Internet Project, University of California, Berkeley

Extended Study of China Internet:

China makes a systematic, comprehensive, and frequently
successful effort to limit the ability of its citizens to access
and to post on-line content the state considers sensitive. At
the level of legal regulation, China has a complex, overlapping
system of laws, regulations, and informal methods that attempts
to prevent the creation and distribution of banned material. At
the technological level, the state employs a sophisticated
infrastructure that filters content at multiple levels and that
tolerates overblocking as the price of preventing access to
prohibited sites. Importantly, China's filtering efforts lack
transparency: the state does not generally admit to censoring
Internet content, and concomitantly there is no list of banned
sites and no ability for citizens to request reconsideration of
blocking, as some other states that filter provide. The topics
defined as sensitive, or prohibited, by China's legal code are
broad and non-specific, and enforcement of laws such as the ban
on spreading state secrets discourages citizens from testing the boundaries of these areas. China's legal and technological
systems combine to form a broad, potent, and effective means of
controlling the information that Chinese users can see and share
on the Internet.

Moreover, the research we have conducted over several years -
both individually as institutions and collectively as the ONI -
demonstrates increasing sophistication of China's filtering
regime. Its filtering system has become at once more refined and
comprehensive over time, building a matrix of controls that
stifles access to information deemed illegitimate by
authorities. Considering that China's growing Internet
population represents nearly half of all Internet users
worldwide, and will soon overtake the United States as the
single largest national group of Internet users, such extensive
censorship should be of concern to all Internet users worldwide.
China's advanced filtering regime presents a model for other
countries with similar interests in censorship to follow. It has also shown a willingness to defend and even promote the principles of its filtering regime to international venues governing global communications, such as the World Summit of the Information Society.

While there can be legitimate debates about whether
democratization and liberalization are taking place in China's economy and government, there is no doubt that neither is taking place in China's Internet environment today.
NB Previous Technologos Comments:

10:35 PM  

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