By CARRIE KIRBY
San Francisco Chronicle
December 26, 2005
Microsoft bans "democracy" and "Dalai Lama" from the Chinese version of its blog site. Yahoo recently turned over information that helped the Chinese government track down and imprison a journalist for the crime of forwarding an e-mail. Google omits banned publications from its Chinese news service.
Critics say that cooperating with governments to suppress free speech violates human rights, international law and corporate ethics. But what the experts can't agree on is what the companies should do about it. The Internet - even with limitations - is generally considered a powerful democratizing force. If international companies withdrew from the Chinese Internet market, the result might mean even fewer chances for free communications there.
"It's morally problematic that they are partnering with the Chinese government on censorship," said Timothy Fort, a professor of business ethics at George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C. "(But) their being there spurs the doomsday for the Communist government."
From the very beginning of the Internet's development in China, the government has kept tight control, even as it encouraged the network's growth for the purpose of economic development.
Sixty-two people are in prison for violating Internet content laws in China, far more than in any other country, according to the Paris advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.
Internet service providers, Web sites and Internet cafes are expected to limit what their customers see and do online, and U.S. companies that provide Web sites to the Chinese are not exempt. Yahoo, for instance, filters its search results so that a search for "Free Tibet" in Chinese yields zero Web pages. Google does not censor its searches, although the Chinese government's system blocks many Web sites that Google links to.
Mountain View's Google said its exclusion of some Chinese publications from Google News was not based on external pressure.
"Some sources were not included because their sites are inaccessible and therefore their inclusion does not provide a good experience for our news users who are looking for information," spokeswoman Debbie Frost said.
Yahoo has acknowledged providing the Chinese government with information leading to the arrest of journalist Shi Tao. In 2004, Shi allegedly e-mailed a government warning about the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre to foreign Web sites.
"I do not like the outcome of what happens with these things," Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. "But we have to follow the law."
Yang's response has become the standard defense for technology companies doing business in China.
Microsoft's statement on the subject reads, "Like other global organizations, we must abide by the laws, regulations and unique elements of each country in which we operate."
Google, whose credo is "Don't be evil," has not had to face the issue as much as its competitors, because in the past, Google had no operations in the People's Republic of China. But now Google has an office in Shanghai and a small stake in Chinese search engine Baidu, and it is about to open a research and development center in China.
Frost would not say whether Google would start censoring the Chinese version of its site.
"Google complies with local laws where it operates. We are also committed to doing what is best for our users," she said. "With China, we are in the process of learning as much as possible in order to achieve both of these important objectives."
Both human rights groups and academics reject the companies' argument that they have no choice but to follow local laws where they do business.
"If the Chinese custom is to make children work or to kill women, you wouldn't do it," said Julien Pain, head of the Internet Freedom Desk at Reporters Without Borders.
Professor Tom Donaldson, director of the doctoral program in ethics and law at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, compared tech companies helping China squelch free speech with Polaroid's providing photographic technology for the passport system used under South African apartheid to control the movements of black citizens.
Donaldson said that while what China is doing may not seem as insidious as the apartheid system, free speech is a human right just as important as freedom of movement.
"Most other rights hang on the ability of the community to have open discussions," he said. In fact, he proposed that what Yahoo, Microsoft and others are accused of doing is worse than merely selling technology to corrupt governments, because the companies appear to be actively participating in the censorship.
Despite the controversy, U.S. companies aren't likely to willingly forgo doing business in China, a market of huge promise. More than 100 million people there are online, yet that still represents less than 8 percent of the population. By 2009, Chinese e-commerce is expected to be a $390.9 billion market, according to research firm IDC. By then, there are expected to be more Internet users in China than in the United States.
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