Google's China Syndrome
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Are Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco playing Smithers to China's Emperor Burns? In recent weeks, major technology players have been accused of helping China police its internet. Yahoo helped China convict cyberdissidents by handing over email records. Google has gotten the lash for filtering sites disliked by Beijing, as have Microsoft and Cisco for pulling the plug on a dissident blogger and selling traceable hardware to Chinese companies.
Washington Sinophobes are in a knot. Today, a House human rights subcommittee begins asking for answers. Committee members, including Republican Rep. Chris Smith, a harsh China critic, say the companies are selling out fundamental rights. "This is not benign or neutral," Smith told AP. "They have an obligation not to be promoting dictatorship."
As cyberdissidents with rising profiles blog at repressive regimes, experts say nations, including China, United Arab Emirates, Burma, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, are understandably ramping up efforts to analyze traffic, filter content and nab troublemakers, in some cases with the help of American filtering software and, in the case of China, the cooperation of the American tech sector.
Though they point to obvious problems, experts say that for the sophisticated user, or the user who gets help from sophisticated software, the internet is still highly anonymous. But it's not easy, as the filtering war with China illustrates.
The China lesson
Nart Villeneuve of the University of Toronto told Washington lawmakers on Feb. 6 that the outlook in China is uncertain and U.S. companies aren't helping: "China is certainly seeking to maintain its strict information control, and companies that enable and conform to Chinese censorship policies are further confining the spaces in which China's citizens can express themselves online."
Beijing's enemies include gearheads who build ways for dissident surfers to slip through to the Middle Kingdom's walls to get their message out and access sites with forbidden themes such as Tibet, Falun Gong, "human rights" and "social justice."
One thorn in the regime's side is twentysomething anti-filtering activist Bennett Hazelton. Founder of Peacefire.org, Hazelton has developed software to help Chinese users connect to computers located outside their country, where they can then access sites normally filtered by Chinese authorities. He says the internet holds much promise to defeat repression and open access to information, but "it will not happen by itself."
Another group aiding dissidents is the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose software known as The Onion Router, or TOR, has proven useful at sidestepping firewalls. Some Chinese have developed tools: Falun Gong members, whose websites are a target of Chinese filtering, have developed UltraSurf, which reportedly lets Chinese users access Internet Explorer without being detected. And the U.S. government-backed Voice of America is working on a version of TOR, according to Hazelton, and hosts some circumventor sites.
As global connectivity rises and as cyberdissidents of all stripes, especially bloggers, cause problems for repressive states, the need for anonymity grows. Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, stresses the need for bloggers to ensure their anonymity and has recently authored a guide to help. The Committee to Protect Bloggers is also on the case.
Yahoo and Google's China problems remind that censorship is as much about real space politics as code. While the media, some bloggers and politicians are swinging heavy hammers at the companies, others point out room for nuances. Google has taken the hardest hit and, according to the New York Times , is working most closely with Chinese authories. The company has taken public hits for seemingly abandoning its core values, but executives have said they took the better of two bad roads.
In a recent press statement, Google senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin said: "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission."
But would China be worse for wear if U.S. firms pulled out? Or is some engagement desirable, even if it smacks of collusion in the short run? And what would disengagement by U.S. firms do for China's users?
Some point out that Google has avoided making Gmail and blog services available to avoid the pressures Yahoo felt to turn over email records. Ethan Zuckerman, who discloses that he is a personal friend of Google's McLaughlin, writes that U.S. companies disengaging completely from China would likely mean that Chinese companies rushing in to fill the void would prove even more malleable to official pressure. Noting that Yahoo and Microsoft (when it took down a blog critical of the government) seemed to put up little resistance, he wrote on Feb. 9: "Complete disengagement simply guarantees that the Chinese internet and the rest of the internet will look less and less alike as both grow. Companies like Google and Yahoo! could have a much more powerful impact by engaging -- cautiously -- in the Chinese market and fighting like hell to protect their users' rights."
As the human rights subcommittee gets the woodshed ready, some are calling for self-inspection. When Congress in 2002 granted China Permanent Normal Trading relations, against human rights lobby, it was following the same engagement strategy as the high-tech companies it berates, writes Ying Ma, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She says that Congress itself was "unable to resist China's vast market potentials itself, or the clear benefits of free trade" and is now "flabbergasted that every high-tech and internet company doing business in China has not taken up the mantle of ending Beijing's authoritarian rule."
Some lawmakers and activists are calling for a corporate code of conduct as well as a law that would penalize companies that collaborated with censorship regimes. Reporters Without Borders has proposed a code that would prohibit U.S. companies from basing servers in restrictive countries and stop companies from incorporating automatic filters in search tools.
Bennett Hazelton says the passage of a law would actually give U.S. companies a greenlight to play with Chinese leaders.
"The possible good side of a law is that companies would have more bargaining power," Hazelton said. "They could say, look, we have this law we have to follow; we are participating to the maximum extent possible."
Kelly Hearn is a former UPI staff writer who divides his time between the United States and South America. A correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor , his work has appeared in The Nation , The American Prospect and other publications. He is a regular contributor to AlterNet.