To the surprise of almost no one, sad to say, China has decided to clamp down some more on free speech and its citizens’ access to online information.
Sadder still, the technology industry is a key and all too willing enabler of the regime’s system of control. China’s leaders want to create a capitalist economy without equivalent political freedom.
I doubt they can have the one without the other. Free, open information flow is the heart of a market economy, and the entrepreneurial spirit has tended to go hand in hand with a strong sense of individualism.
Some suggest China is aiming to become a gigantic version of Singapore, an authoritarian city-state that has done well financially – and boasts a strong high-tech sector – in spite of its repressive politics.
Singapore, however, has hit a wall in its progress. It has been urging its people to be creative – another entrepreneurial characteristic – which is rather like pushing on a string.
As China tries to combine a free market with a lack of freedom in social and political expression, the technology industry rightly faces increasing pressure from human-rights activists.
It was easier for companies to make moral decisions a couple of decades ago, when South Africa’s racist system earned the world’s condemnation.
Many technology companies – including IBM, which had previously been a chief supplier to the South African system – stopped doing business there and the global boycott helped end apartheid.
South Africa was economically a small nation. China is the world’s largest, not in GDP – yet – but growing faster and boasting more potential than just about any other market. So it’s understandable that companies are reluctant to forgo its possibilities.
Technology is potentially one of the most liberating of forces. That’s why there is something ugly about the way prominent companies are becoming such handmaidens to the Chinese regime’s crackdowns.
The participation of Microsoft is least surprising. In July, it was reported that the software company put filters in its Chinese blogging software, blocking such dangerous words as “democracy” and “freedom” in weblog addresses.
Why was this not surprising? Because Microsoft has been on the side of information control in the US too, as the handmaiden of the copyright cartel – Hollywood and its allies – that wants to put digital locks on all kinds of information to prevent its unauthorised copying.
Nor, for similar reasons, is it a shock that Cisco Systems’ networking gear is becoming a bulwark of information control. After all, Cisco eagerly markets routers that discriminate about what bits get delivered, and when.
Reporters Without Borders, a promoter of free journalism, has reported that Cisco modified its routers to help the Chinese government ban certain kinds of speech.
Technology may be neutral, but its application is not. Cisco cannot blithely distance itself from the consequences of its products’ use by a repressive regime.
Two China-hugging companies that deal almost purely in information, not infrastructure, are Google and Yahoo. Their co-operation has been disheartening.
It was disappointing to learn that Yahoo had played an active role in helping the government track down a dissident by handing over e-mail server logs. Yahoo, responding to an accusation from Reporters Without Borders, told Reuters it was only following the law.
Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of the Global Voices Online website at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a friend of mine, is unimpressed.
Companies such as Yahoo, she wrote on her blog, “need to ask themselves tough questions about whether they can operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based while upholding their ethical values”.
“Assuming they have some. Even if they don’t, they must realise that helping put dissidents in jail is bad for corporate image.”
But not bad enough, apparently, to dissuade them. I am not suggesting it is a simple issue. But the industry has not addressed it squarely. Honour, not just money, is at stake.
Dan Gillmor’s website is Bayosphere.com