Thursday, March 30, 2006

Engineering Censorship in China

On the last day of April in 2005, Chinese journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to ten years in prison for sending an email to a New York colleague, the editor-in-chief of a publication called Democracy News. According to the Chinese court's verdict, Tao's email contained state secrets, and his crime consisted in leaking them to an "overseas hostile element," namely, Democracy News. The thing that makes Tao's case interesting to the rest of the world, and America in particular, is that Yahoo ! Holdings (Hong Kong) helped the Chinese government identify Tao by divulging information about his private email account. Without Yahoo's help, Tao quite possibly would be a free man today, working for what he sees to be the noble goal of promoting democracy in China.

By some estimates, China is the world's biggest untapped market for information technology. The population of mainland China makes up the second-largest group of Internet users, second only to the U. S. That wouldn't have happened without technology—hardware and software-—furnished largely by U. S. owned or operated companies such as Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft. In order to gain access to the lucrative Chinese market, all three firms have agreed to abide by the restrictive censorship and information-control policies of the Peoples' Republic of China. They have also been roundly criticized for such cooperation. In January, the Secretary General of Amnesty International expressed dismay at the "growing global trend in the IT industry" to impose "restrictions that infringe on human rights." Revealing private email account information, shutting down "undesirable" websites, and restricting search-engine results to items that are politically acceptable are a few examples of the steps that IT firms have taken in order to stay on good terms with the Chinese government.

Some people like to say that all technology is ethically neutral, and the only time ethics comes into the picture is when you look at how the technology is used. I have yet to be convinced of the ethical neutrality of a nuclear weapon. As we have found, the nuclear tests of the 1960s in which no one was directly killed nevertheless caused environmental damage and radiation levels that led to serious later harm. Some technologies carry with them an intrinsic bias toward good or evil, and it is foolish to pretend otherwise. It may be necessary from time to time to build things with a built-in ethical bias, but we do that in full consciousness that they cannot be viewed as ethically neutral.

The Internet's designers imbued its very structure with the spirit of egalitarianism and, one might even say, democracy. The distributed, non-hierarchical way that information travels, the "universal" record locators that anyone from an eleven-year-old boy in his bedroom to the U. S. government can obtain under basically the same rules, and the almost-instant access to anything are all biased toward the "global village" model of human interaction. While one may disagree with the merits of that model, it has created a situation in which democracy, openness, and the free exchange of information come naturally to the Internet. To restrict any of these things means that IT designers and companies have to go to extra trouble and expense. In a sense, they are going against the grain of the whole design philosophy of the system.

In defending Microsoft's actions, Microsoft founder Bill Gates claims that the basically open nature of the Internet will lead to a net increase in freedom for the Chinese people, despite the restrictions and occasional blog-takedowns that his firm does at the government's bidding. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January as reported in the Times of London Online, Gates said, "I do think information flow is happening in China ... even by existing there contributions to a national dialogue have taken place. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s been a huge plus."

It is a fact that laws and freedoms differ greatly from one country to another. Doing business in countries with evil or corrupt regimes has always been a morally complex thing. Quite often, moral clarity is arrived at only after the utter defeat and repudiation of a government such as that of Nazi Germany after World War II. And as Gates points out, engaging a country through trade can lead to opportunities for improving the lot of its citizens that an absolute hands-off posture would prevent.

All the same, I get a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think that where I live influences what I'll be able to find on Google, or what I'll be able to email to my friends. I visited China back in 1989, less than two months after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Our guide pointed out the blackened blocks of concrete which had not yet been replaced after the fires and violence of those days. It saddens me that the same government which committed those crimes is still in power, and has strong-armed the cooperation of U. S. corporations that have enjoyed freedom in this country and now are a party to restricting it in China. But this may be one of those situations where we will find out what the right course is only by waiting to see how things turns out.

Sources: Article "Gates Defends China's Internet Restrictions" is at,,19149-2012784,00.html. Article on Yahoo co-founder, "Yang defends support for 'firewall of China'" is at
Amnesty International's press release of January 2006 "China: Internet companies assist censorship" is at Shi Tao's verdict is at the Reporters Without Borders website

No comments:

Post a Comment