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The Great Internet Firewall of China
U.S. tech companies are helping to obstruct Net freedom
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2005-11-21 11:08 (KST)   
While Presidents George W. Bush of the U.S and Hu Jintao of China met in Beijing yesterday Nov. 20, to discuss issues of trade, the expansion of personal freedoms and protection of intellectual property rights, the one-day meeting was more about symbolism than substance. The meeting occurred after a crackdown of Chinese dissidents and no questions from the press were allowed during the joint appearance between Bush and Hu.

The issue of Internet freedom is also looming large for the world's two largest Internet competitors. For a country of 1.3 billion, China is second in the world only to the U.S. with 103 million Internet users, compared to 203 million Americans. However, that number only represents 7.9 percent of China's population, compared to 68 percent of the U.S.'s. This huge market is changing the way people do business with China -- and as companies and citizens are discovering, it's raising questions of whether it's possible to do business ethically in the Middle Kingdom.

Scrambling to Adapt

Only a few years ago, most predicted that foreign investment would move China towards a more transparent, western style of democracy. However, today U.S. companies are scrambling to adapt to Chinese laws and customs, as Yahoo! recently claimed when they were accused of being directly involved in the jailing of journalist Shi Tao.

Anne Stevenson-Yang, Director of the U. S. Information Technology Organization (USITO) in Beijing, writes of the Chinese-American relationship; "The two systems differ so fundamentally that, as they encounter one another, both must adapt in order to survive." The key word is -- both -- and the question is whether "adapting" means violating basic human rights.

Nowhere is this new relationship more visible than on the Internet.

China, along with 15 other countries including Iran and Nepal, has been branded one of the "enemies of the Internet" by Reporters Without Borders. It is currently the world's biggest prison for cyber-dissidents, with 62 in prison for what they posted online.

Yet, Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft and Cisco -- models of American innovation that flourished in a free and transparent economic environment -- are falling over each other to fit into the Chinese system. If this means trading in the ideals that served them in achieving their current success, they have shown an expedient willingness to do so.

Both Microsoft and Yahoo! have been criticized for actively filtering phrases like "freedom" and "democracy" from their search engines that the Chinese government finds unpleasing. Google, while not actively filtering, has been accused of cooperating with the Chinese government.

In fact, for years Yahoo! has allowed the Chinese version of its search engine to be censored. In 2002, the Yahoo! voluntarily signed the Internet Society of China's "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry," agreeing to abide by PRC censorship regulations.

Cisco has been criticized for allegedly providing the Chinese police with technology that could be in direct violation of a law that prohibits U.S. firms from selling "crime control and detection" equipment to China. Cisco also provides router hardware and software that has been used to filter Web traffic within the country and conduct surveillance of Chinese Internet users.

Last month, Yahoo! went one further in trying "to adapt in order to survive" by identifying Mainland journalist Shi Tao for the authorities. Shi was sentenced in April to 10 years in prison for "divulging state secrets abroad." What he did was forward a message to foreign journalists issued by Chinese authorities warning new agencies about coverage of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square "incident," as the 1989 massacre is referred to on the Mainland. Then on Oct. 18, online peer-produced encyclopedia Wikipedia was banned.

Violating Privacy Rights

Yahoo Holdings is based in the southern Chinese city of Hong Kong. Under a special constitutional arrangement referred to as "one country, two systems," Hong Kong is allowed a high level of autonomy from Beijing. In other words, you can surf the Internet without being subject to Mainland restrictions.

When I google "Tiananmen Massacre" here in Hong Kong, for example, the first hit that comes up refers to the 1989 student protests. Try the same search only 40 kilometers north in the Mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen and an error message will appear. The authorities, along with a little help from Microsoft and Yahoo, have all references blocked.

This autonomy also means that companies with offices in Hong Kong are not supposed to be subject to Mainland law, unless the case involves national security. Whether or not Tao's email actually involved issues of national security is impossible to ascertain. The Mainland's definition of "state secrets" and "national security" is ambiguous and specific cases are not open to public scrutiny.

However, Hong Kong has strict privacy laws, while the Mainland has none. Earlier this month, Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner Roderick Woo Bun, agreed to continue with an investigation into whether Yahoo! had violated Tao's privacy. The Chinese government requested the business information, or the location of Tao's place of employment and office telephone, both of which the commission initially had not considered personal information.

Privacy rights advocates and defenders of civil liberties the world over expressed dismay at this bending of Hong Kong laws. Legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah expressed concern and promised to look further into the matter. A few days later, Bun reversed his decision and announced the investigation would continue.

The case demonstrates the power Mainland authorities have in obtaining an individual's private information in Hong Kong. The Internet Service Provider, in this case i-Cable, had little choice at the time but to comply with the initial request or face vague consequences, such as prosecution for obstruction of justice.

Corporate Responsibility

Not everyone is comfortable with American companies such as Yahoo! colluding with Mainland authorities to circumvent law and undermine civil liberties. A growing number of people are joining forces to protect freedom of speech.

On Nov. 7, an alliance of investors and researchers representing twenty-six companies in the U.S., Europe and Australia with over US $21 billion in joint assets announced that they were urging businesses to protect freedom of expression and pledged to monitor technology companies that do business in countries violating human rights.

"As shareholders, we need to feel confident that our companies are not complicit in human rights abuses, directly or indirectly, and that they're not collaborating to effectively quell internet traffic, to harm their own good reputations and to reduce their long-term growth opportunities," said Dawn Wolfe, social research and advocacy analyst for Boston Common Asset Management, one of the participating investment funds.

Tearing Down the Wall

In May, U.S. Congressman Christopher Cox re-introduced the Global Internet Freedom Act designed "to develop and deploy technologies to defeat Internet jamming." If it passes, it could be a step towards bringing down obstructions to the free-flow of information on the Internet, such as China's "Great Firewall."

Reporter Without Borders recently compiled a "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents" to promote freedom on the Internet. The intent is to enable Internet users to operate freely while protecting their identity and user information.

However, former CNN correspondent now blogger Rebecca Mackinnon states:

"There's a political assumption here in this country that the internet will ultimately play a key role in transforming China into a democracy. I wouldn't be so sure about that...It's a model that China is already starting to be copied not only by neighboring dictatorships like Vietnam and others like Iran. It's a model that could also come in handy to other governments that tend to call themselves democratic."

The implication is clear -- this challenge to Internet freedom is one being faced by users the world over. The struggle occurring in China right now could eventually be your own.
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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