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Swayed in China

Google’s approach to doing business in China is more ethical than Yahoo’s or Microsoft’s, says industry watchdog.

The Chinese government’s extensive – and now well-known – system of online surveillance and censorship enables it to squelch websites deemed “subversive” and find their creators – punishing activists with prison terms, and thereby crimping the public’s access to information.

Over the past four years, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières), an international watchdog group dedicated to defending journalists and dissidents, has criticized such tech giants as Yahoo and Microsoft for aiding and abetting China’s restrictive policies by offering sanitized versions of their content in that country.

Last month, the group took Google to task for its decision to launch a Chinese version of its search-engine that’s cleansed of politically sensitive references to topics such as Tibet, Tiananmen Square, and democracy. Indeed, in a statement on January 25, the group called the launch of a “black day for freedom of expression in China.”

Peter Fairley, a Technology Review contributing writer based in Paris, spoke recently with Julien Pain, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Internet Freedom desk.

Technology Review: Unlike the other tech firms in your crosshairs, who seem to have ignored your letters and reports, Google acknowledged your concerns about their decision to abide by China’s censorship policy. Did anything positive come from that dialogue?

Julien Pain: I think the way they launched their service shows Google was well aware of the problems. What Google did is better than what Yahoo and others agreed to. But it’s still a bad decision, which will have consequences for freedom of expression. Google was the last search engine accessible in China that refused to apply censorship. Until now they at least listed the banned websites.

TR: Chinese Web users could previously discover a banned site using Google and then access it using a “proxy” site masking their true location, correct?

JP: Right. The problem [now that Google will be censored as well] is they won’t know it’s there. If you set up a website from outside China to talk about human rights or democracy, or whatever, there’s no way you can get an audience. It’s like tossing a bottle into the sea. You just throw your content onto the Internet and, without uncensored search engines, there will be no way for an Internet user in China to find it.

TR: So why do you think Google’s approach is still better than those by Yahoo and others?

JP: Yahoo says “We respect the local legislation and that’s that.” At least Google tried to find a compromise between its ethical values and its desire to do business in China. The compromise is that they will display a short message at the bottom of the page saying the results are censored. Google has also refused to host its mail servers in China. Yahoo accepted having its mail service hosted in China, which I think is a very dangerous decision.

TR: A Chinese journalist, Shi Tao, was sentenced to ten years in prison last September, after Yahoo’s Hong Kong operation divulged information that he’d sent an embarrassing e-mail, showing how the government pressured journalists not to report on the Tiananmen Square massacre. Did Yahoo have to hand over those records?

JP: When you operate [servers] in China you have no other choice. [So] if you don’t want to be a police informant, the right decision is to not host your e-mail servers in China.

TR: Tech companies often defend themselves by arguing that the bulk of the Internet’s information gets past the censors anyway, which will inevitably lead China toward a more open society. Why don’t you share their optimism?

JP: We’ve been monitoring Internet censorship in China for more than five years and the situation is not improving. There are more and more people connected to the Internet and more and more people publishing news on the Internet, yet there is less and less freedom of expression. That’s because the Chinese have acquired very sophisticated technology to filter bulletin boards, chat rooms, blogs – everything.

TR: Government censorship and surveillance is also expanding in the United States in the name of fighting terrorism. Do you think the U.S. technology leaders’ behavior in China may have encouraged tighter control of information in democratic countries?

JP: The fact that the U.S. and France and other countries agree sometimes to censor the Internet or to intercept communications is setting a bad example. We have very strong suspicions that it is selling its [filtering] technology to other dictatorships around the world, such as Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Cuba. We notice that when the Chinese visit this kind of country they always bring along [Chinese] Internet companies and their minister of telecommunications.

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