Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

Google et al. vs China

The Internet giants’ best bet for advancing the cause of free speech in China

Ah, unrequited love. Shortly after Valentine's Day, the Chinese government received two love letters from free speech. The first, delivered by the United States government, took the form of a House of Representatives hearing on the activities of four US-owned Internet companies operating in China. Congress attacked Cisco, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google for helping China to censor the Internet, likening their complicity to that of the American businesses that provided technology to the Nazis during the Holocaust.

The second, delivered by thirteen retired Chinese officials, lawyers and academics, protested the closure of the Chinese news and opinion journal Freezing Pointand called for a "free flow of ideas." What is shocking about the petition is not so much its content but who signed it. Among others, the authors include Li Rui, former secretary to Mao Zedong; Zhu Houze, former head of the Chinese propaganda department; and Hu Jiwei, the former editor-in-chief of People's Daily, a mouthpiece for the Communist party.

In light of the letter delivered by the United States government, the actions of Yahoo! et al seem downright cowardly. "Are you ashamed?" Rep. Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, demanded of each of the companies. Yahoo! was the only company to admit any real wrongdoing, and they had good reason to: When asked by the Chinese government, Yahoo! turned over information that led to the arrest of three Chinese journalists, one of whom is now serving a ten-year sentence. Microsoft, who had shut down a journalist's blog at the request of the powers-that-be, was less repentant, and Google drew fire for agreeing to block information on Tiananmen Square and other topics on the Chinese version of their site. Finally, Cisco, who sold network hardware to the Chinese police, defended itself by explaining that what it had sold was "identical to the products we provide worldwide." When pressed, the Cisco rep responded with this stinger: "My answer is that I feel that our engagement is consistent with our government's goals."

What he meant by that isn't immediately clear. Certainly, the US has believed since the Nixon administration that the political and economic value of doing business with China outweighs the drawbacks. China's 130 million Internet users make it the second-largest web presence in the world and it will soon eclipse America. By now, every elementary student has heard that the world's largest untapped market lies to the East (there's gold in them thar hills!) and China knows it, dangling the dollar value of its burgeoning capitalist market in the faces of rich Western nations. At a recent press conference responding to the Congressional hearing, the Deputy Director of the CCP State Council Information Office Internet Control Bureau teased that "the Chinese market is huge and open. More and more foreign companies would like a share of the huge profits to be made in China." From an economic perspective, shunning that market would be irresponsible.

However, Cisco's statement could be interpreted in other ways. During Yahoo!'s testimony, the company was practically begging for regulation from the US government. This would give them the leverage to say to foreign governments, "Yes, our license requires us to obey your laws, but we also have to obey ours." In fact, a new bill introduced to Congress would, if passed, do just that. Companies with operations in "Internet-restricting" countries such as China, Iran and Vietnam would be forbidden from releasing information about users or censoring search results without first getting the approval of the US Justice Department.

Among other things, the bill would create an Office of Global Internet Freedom that would demand a list of blocked pages and forbidden search terms "provided by any foreign official of an Internet-restricting country." While this may seem like a perfectly reasonable request to the House of Representatives, China will view this as hypocritical: Why should an organization demand a government's "sensitive" search terms while refusing to give up lists of its own citizens' searches? The wording on the new bill also permits ongoing censorship by Western nations such as Germany-which demands that Google filter Nazi-related material from German search results-or the US itself, whose Digital Millennium Copyright Act has been used by The Church of Scientology to compel Google to censor its own results.

At its press conference, China's officials claimed to use "internationally common practices" in regulating the Internet, and to have been inspired by the US Patriot Act. While this answer is laughable-with an estimated 500,000 censored pages, the difference between web censorship in China and the rest of the world is obvious to everyone but China-a set of transparently slanted laws that includes loopholes for friendly nations isn't going to impress the value of free Internet access upon anyone. It's not surprising that the chances of the current draft of the bill passing are, as the New York Times put it, "slim-to-none."

Following the hearing, a number of Western news sources ran editorials taking the moral high ground. ("Private companies should refuse to abet governments that violate freedom of speech," wrote the Ottawa Citizen, while the Chicago Tribune urged "the go-go leaders of our internet industry" to "stand up to China's cyber-censors and tear down what many are calling the 'Great Firewall' of China."). Others criticized the US government for mixing politics and business. Painted in broad strokes of black and white, these op-ed pieces were engaging and easy to digest but didn't contribute much towards finding a viable answer.

Which brings us to the tech companies' main defence; that freedom of speech is better served with them operating in China than without. Google CEO Eric Schmidt, referring to Google's own "Don't be evil" motto, said, "We actually did an evil scale and decided that not to serve at all was worse evil." Microsoft and Yahoo! wrote that, while they were censoring results, they were actually giving users "far wider access" to information.

That's a claim that deserves scrutiny but is, unfortunately, difficult to prove.

"There's no evidence that Google and the others are providing any more information [to users] than Chinese companies," Amy O'Meara of Amnesty International told Newsweek magazine. However, there are examples which prove her wrong. Liu Xiaobo's name has been banned in state media for criticizing the single-party system, demanding democratic reform and requesting an apology for Tiananmen Square. Baidu, the mainland's largest search engine, returns no results for a search on his name, while Google China and Yahoo! China both return 20,000 matches. Some things are slipping through. "One could walk away," said Microsoft's chief council, Brad Smith, "but that would also be turning our backs on the problem."

It is this very question-whether it is better to keep our hands clean by sitting on the sidelines or make moral compromises while pushing through small changes-that makes this issue so compelling. In the wake of Iraq, Darfour, Rwanda, and countless "What-about-the-Prime-Directive?" episodes of Star Trek, the moral tension inherent to the "to engage or not to engage" question resonates. Sure, it can be argued that "they're just doing it for the money," but that argument is simplistic-or perhaps even outdated, ever since the day Yahoo!'s complicity in the arrest of the Chinese journalists was splashed all over international newspapers and protestors mocked Google's motto.

There's no reason to believe that the tech giants don't want to nudge democracy forward as they pull in their dough-why wouldn't they? As outsiders, they can voice objections to Chinese requests without fear of imprisonment. Even if they eventually comply, the role of the dissenter is important. The only question is, are they morally and strategically strong enough to take on this role?

Probably not on their own. And they can't look tothe US government for support; the legislation won't pass any time soon. In the meantime, watchdog groups such as Reporters Without Borders have called upon businesses to regulate themselves. Google, the most blameless of the four, save Cisco, could lead the charge. Their refusal to offer email or blogging services guarantees they never have to give up incriminating information. (Withholding information from China's citizens is one thing; surrendering personal data that leads to an arrest is another.) Google also alerts users whenever results have been censored. It doesn't sound like much, but they're ruffling some feathers. In the week following the hearing, a nationalist Chinese newspaper accused Google of operating without a license and complained, "Does a business operating in China need to constantly tell customers that it's abiding by the laws of the land?"

Anyone expecting American companies to democratize China from the outside is being naive. The sentiment from Chinese bloggers is that reform is going to have to come from within; from people like themselves-people like Li Rui and Zhu Houze, who signed the Freezing Point petition, and by the journalists who risk their freedom to protect the freedoms of their fellow citizens. Tech companies need to follow Google's example and make damn sure that they're not endangering the true revolutionaries-and they need to keep reminding people when their rights are being curtailed.

But perhaps the smartest thing to do is to strategically lay low for a while. Comply. Smile. Become entrenched and make themselves indispensable. Wait until China can't imagine life without them and then rally together as a group, when they have more leverage to say "no."

Will it be enough? Who knows? But they can-and should-try.

Mark Moyes censors no one but himself. He keeps a blog at chikimonkey.com.