Tech's China challenge

10 Mar 2006

By the time you read this, the flap over the Internet Gang of Four collaborating with Chinese censors will have died down. Congresspeople will have expressed outrage, the Four - Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Cisco - will have shown contrition and water cooler chat will have moved back to Idol.

Inside Line, too, was prepared to drop the topic until one Liu Zhengrong stepped up to the plate.

Liu, deputy chief of the Internet Affairs Bureau of the State Council Information Office (a revealing title: in just how many countries do we find an Internet Affairs bureau, and in particular as part of the government's information control apparatus‾) volunteered that Internet regulation in China is no different from anywhere else in the world.

'Regulating the Internet according to law is international practice,' Liu was reported in the official China Daily newspaper. 'After studying Internet legislation in the West, I've found we basically have identical legislative objectives and principles.'

That is completely wrong.

China has the world's largest and most aggressive Internet censorship regime. It ranks 159th out of 167 countries in the Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) press freedom index. A study by the Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet three years ago found some 20,000 sites were off-limits in China - thousands more than the rest of the world combined.

The RSF's Washington representative, Lucy Marillon, told last month's Congressional hearings that access is blocked by a constantly updated blacklist of forbidden Web sites. Anything that is considered to be pro-Tibetan or pro-Taiwanese independence, for example, is blocked on the Internet backbones.

Liu also claims that no one has ever been arrested as a result of an Internet posting.

That is also at variance with the facts.

RSF estimates that approximately 50 online writers languish in Chinese jails, mostly for such treasonous acts as calling for more openness or democracy.

Liu's officially-sanctioned falsehoods go to the heart of the matter. The Chinese government actively censors out critical Internet material yet the Chinese people are not aware of it. The people have no ability to filter out lies and misinformation by their rulers.

Just as China's economy has boomed as result of market liberalization in the last quarter century, so the society will benefit from a more open flow of information.

That doesn't make the decision on how to deal with the Chinese market any easier for the Gang of Four and their rivals. Inside Line has some sympathy for those firms. Their shareholders expect them to be in China, their competitors have businesses in China, and they are bound to comply with the law wherever they operate.

But there is no evidence they have attempted to make this an issue through the State Department or their own lobby groups. The RSF has been writing to tech CEOs on the matter since 2002, without any response.

So the tech Gang of Four have been forced to enter into a public dialogue about how they operate in China and in other repressive states. That is a better result than fresh legislation aimed at limiting their role in China.

But is this something we in the telecom industry should care about‾

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