U.S. tech: Get to China

We once scorned the idea the Internet could be censored. Many politicians have tried to stop porn, but always to no avail. Spam still pours in our in-boxes, and the net is increasingly susceptible to viruses and “mal-ware.” 

Despite the tough-talkin’ rhetoric and angry hand-wringing of authorities, there are very few actual limits to what people can do online. Even in its more restricted forms, the net fosters an array of features that enable free expression.

This means the recent attack by human-rights activists and some legislators on <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />U.S. technology firms like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo isn’t just misguided— it’s a direct threat to the spread of freedom. Ban-happy Chinese censors, not U.S. companies, should be the target of the activists’ ire.

These firms—under fire for “censoring” search results and blocking some Web logs at the behest of Chinese censors—provide services that foster anonymous communications.

Leaving China disconnected, as some suggest, would hinder developing internet infrastructure and would deny Chinese citizens access to the many useful services these companies provide. Just 110 million people out of China’s 1.4 billion now have net access; there’s still a monumental “digital divide.” Most Chinese citizens do not experience a limited or censored Internet, but no Internet at all.

For those who have Web access, there often are ways around government restrictions. “Hacktivists” worldwide already provide escape hatches from Chinese government censorship.

The Web, given its architecture, is famous for routing around censorship as if it were a physical disruption. Morally and technologically, staying put and fighting for change—not pulling out—is the right course of action.

Compulsory blocking of Web sites does not outweigh the profound good tech firms can otherwise do in China. Google, for example, heralds vastly more than its search capability. Google’s ejection would hurt the cause of human rights: free Google talk, free Gmail accounts (which can facilitate anonymous communications through password sharing), and the free gigabyte of storage that comes with Gmail accounts (which would have cost huge sums not long ago) all have profound “subversive” implications that can vastly outweigh the negatives from restricted searches. Even if some sites are blocked, the total network access for the Chinese is increased.

Blame must lie with Chinese censors. Tech firms want to promote information, and have no inherent interest in censoring information they profit by providing. The presence of U.S. technology titans in China makes it more likely, not less, that people will be free to exercise their rights.

Economic freedom—here, the fostering of peer networking and individual broadcasting—facilitates political freedom.

Even in the West, the graphical Web is relatively new. It would be foolish to fight so hard to achieve the current unprecedented levels of free speech in China only to pull back because success is not yet complete. The answer is not to deprive Chinese citizens of what Google and others can provide.

Companies need to be relentless rather than apologetic, because the tides of morality, technology and history are on their side. More international companies in China will create more pressure for change—not just from these external forces, but also from the profound employment opportunities (and derivative entrepreneurship) that would accrue to China if “big tech” makes a big footprint.

The fact China allows Internet access at all is the camel’s nose under the tent. The aim now should be to push for more openness, enlisting other tech companies, activists, and governments to urge changes in China’s policies.

Companies can’t fight it alone. They need to team up to refuse, and the U.S. government can get involved in what is essentially a foreign-policy and law-enforcement matter. The State Department already has a Global Internet Freedom task force.

Google’s oft-derided slogan is “Don’t be Evil”; in this case, it’s living up to that credo. Google, Microsoft and other firms are not violating rights—instead they are doing more than nearly anyone else to assure the Chinese of tomorrow enjoy full individual rights. Technology firms are not to blame for the failings of a foreign government; the moral outrage belongs with Chinese censors.