February 22, 2006

February 22, 2006 | Commentary on Asia

Browsing in China

In Congressional hearings last week, senior executives from some of the most powerful U.S. companies got an earful about their dealings with Communist China. How often do Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, and Cisco get lectures on their failure to stand up for human rights and freedom of expression? Not often one imagines. So, kudos to Rep. Chris Smith's House International Relations Sub-Committee on Human Rights for taking an interest in the issue of the Internet in China.

The question is whether by entering the rapidly expanding market of Internet users in China, these companies are helping the cause of intellectual free or aiding the Chinese government in exerting censorship controls on its citizens. The answer -- unfortunately, in terms of clarity from the perspective of an opinion column - is that they are probably doing both.

Just like technology like fax machines helped circumvent the controls of the Soviet government in the early 1990s (it seems almost quaint by now), so the Internet will assuredly be an impossible medium to control even for Chinese dedicated cadre of censors and police, as a medium it is far too fast and too fluid. To that should be added the challenge even trying to monitor instant messaging and cell phones.

On the other hand, the hearing raised the very good question whether American companies, whose business is information technology, and who thrive on our own First Amendment protections here, should aid the Chinese government in something as unethical as censorship and the suppression of dissent.

Yahoo screens its service for words that trigger the censors' attention without informing its users that this is happening, and has bowed to pressure from the Chinese government to share information about two of its users. Google, at least, let the Chinese Internet user know that a page has been blocked, and is planning to have its email server located outside China, where it cannot be monitored. Both companies have defended their decision to comply with Chinese laws, and clearly stand to make a killing in the Chinese market.

In a strong opening statement, Rep. Smith compared the practices of the companies with the story of IBM alliance with NAZI Germany, recommending as reading Edwin Black's "IMB and the Holocaust." "U.S. technology companies today are engaged in a similar sickening collaboration," he said.

China currently has 111 million Internet users, second in number only to the United States. Still, that's a mere fraction of the population and the potential number, just 8 percent of the population. By contrast 60 percent of American adults use the Internet. But like so much else in China these days, it is a fast-growing phenomenon, which the Chinese government has a huge commercial interest in developing.

China has a cadre of Internet censors, under the charmingly named Communist Party's Internet Propaganda Management Department, which monitors Internet traffic through content filters, impose URL blacklists, and monitor traffic to Web sites. Certain "sensitive" phrases trigger the attention of the censors, anything to do with Tiennanmen Square, democracy, as might be expected, but oddly also words like "cat abuse," "buy corpses" and "mascot," according to The Washington Post, which obtained a list of 236 blocked terms from a Chinese blog service.

Trying to control the Internet, though, is like trying to control running water. Internet users are an innovative bunch, and proscribed words and phrases can with lightning speed be replaced with other words. American teenagers years ago worked this out by creating a vocabulary of abbreviations that will alert their friends to a parental presence in the room, and other impediments to their communications.

The U.S. companies have argued during the hearing for a stronger U.S. government involvement in negotiating with the Chinese government on their behalf. Hopefully the newly established "Global Internet Freedom Task Force" of the U.S. State Department will be a useful tool in that regard.

They are not so likely to appreciate Mr. Smith's Global Online Freedom Act of 2006, which nonetheless makes good sense. Mr. Smith's bill mandates placing the servers of the Internet companies outside China. The trade off is decrease the speed by which Internet users can access websites, but the trade off is a protection of their rights, and a guarantee of certain principles that the United States as a free society has the obligation to uphold.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First Appeared in the Washington Times