U.S. Web firms aid in repression

Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft complicit in China's stranglehold on information

Sept. 24, 2005

by David Kopel

Today, many Americans get the news by reading the headlines on the Yahoo!, Google or Microsoft Web portals. Many more Americans learn about current events by using a search engine from one of these companies. In China, however, such behavior can get you thrown in prison - sometimes with the cooperation of the U.S. companies that tout their supposed commitment to goodness and freedom.

Last year, assistant editors of Dangdai Shang Bao (Contemporary Business News)held a staff meeting about a memo sent from national Communist Party headquarters ordering journalists how to cover the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square murders, in which peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing were slaughtered by the Red Army.

Reporter Shi Tao wrote a summary of the meeting, and used his Yahoo! e-mail account to send it to the Asia Democracy Foundation, a group in New York State that supports Chinese democracy. The group published the report, anonymously, on the Web site Democracy Forum and their newsletter Democracy News.

The Chinese dictatorship asked Yahoo! to help them find the person who had sent the message. Yahoo!'s subsidiary in Hong Kong complied, and Shi Tao was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

After Reporters Without Borders (www.rsf.org) broke the story on Sept. 6, 2005, Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang blandly replied that "To be doing business in China, or anywhere else in the world, we have to comply with local law."

Indeed, Yahoo! is so enthusiastic to comply with "local law" - however tyrannical and unjust - that in 2002 Yahoo! signed the "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry" (www.isc.org.cn/20020417/ca102762.htm). Thus, explains Reporters Without Borders, a Chinese Web user who runs a Yahoo! search query for a controversial topic such as "Taiwan independence" will "retrieve only a limited and approved set of results." If "you try to post a message on the subject in a discussion forum, it never appears online."

Google and Microsoft have also signed the so-called "Responsibility" code. After the Chinese government blocked Google in 2002, Google modified its Chinese search engine. Google maintains on its own servers a cache of various Web content, so a Chinese surfer previously might have been able to find forbidden content by using the Google cache, rather than reading the content directly from a banned Web site.

In June 2005, Microsoft admitted that it had imposed filters on its Chinese weblogs to block "forbidden words" such as "freedom," "democracy" and "demonstration."

Reporters Without Borders also reports that much of the Chinese Internet runs through routers sold by Cisco Systems, which Cisco modified to allow searches for "subversive" key words, for visits to prohibited Web sites, and for the transmission of "dangerous" e-mail. Ethan Guttman's book Losing the New China: A Story of American Commerce, Desire and Betrayal,supplies details. Cisco admits to having modified the routers for the Chinese government, but accepts no responsibility for how the modifications are employed.

The Rocky Mountain Newsmentioned the Shi Tao case in a three-paragraph item in the Sept. 7 Business Briefs, and reported more broadly on American complicity in Chinese Internet censorship in an Aug. 15 business story from Bloomberg. The Denver Posthas not given the issue serious attention in 2005.

"Don't be evil" is Google's corporate motto. Microsoft defends its corporate interests on a "Freedom to Innovate Network."

But the noble phrases are contradicted by the misuse of freedom, by cooperation with evil, by assisting the technological advancement of what the Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society calls "the most extensive, technologically sophisticated, and broad-reaching system of Internet filtering in the world."

The evil behavior of American companies in China directly endangers Americans. First of all, the dictatorship censors news about health problems, such as the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory System (SARS); suppression of the news about an epidemic significantly increases the chance that an epidemic could spread internationally.

More broadly, the censorship impedes democratic reform in China, and deprives the Chinese people of truth about their government's violations of human rights, about ethnic suppression in Tibet, and about Taiwan's right to remain independent. Thus, China suppresses popular opposition to dictatorship and to an invasion of Taiwan, which some observers believe could occur soon, and which would likely lead to war with the United States.

The architecture of repression which the American companies and their Chinese paymasters are creating could easily be exported to regimes in other nations.

A Washington Posteditorial (Sept. 18) suggested that the American companies may be violating the 1989 federal law forbidding the sale of "crime control and detection" equipment to China. Unfortunately, the Commerce Department under the Bush, Clinton, and Bush presidencies has often been lax regarding Chinese exports. Perhaps only consumer and shareholder pressure can persuade the American companies to change their evil ways.  

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