American businesses large and small are challenged by Chinaâs âGreat Firewall,â which limits free expression.
Recent news from Tibet has been unsettling, for those who could see it. Reports of a harsh crackdown on protesters by the Chinese government have been tightly controlled within China itself.
This is the kind of situation in which the Internet was supposed to change the balance of power. The expectation was that the free flow of information from beyond a country's borders, combined with the power of local blogs and other social media, would break the monopoly of state news sources and liberate the minds of oppressed people.
Unfortunately, that's not the way things are working out. China has developed sophisticated tools to censor traffic on the Net, making sure that content doesn't cross the Communist Party line. Domestic bloggers--China is estimated to have tens of millions of them--are subject to censorship by the companies that host their sites. (Some bloggers have used tactics deployed by spammers, such as deliberately misspelling banned words to get around filters.)
The leading Chinese search engine, Baidu.com, and the Chinese versions of Yahoo! and MSN limited their coverage of Tibet to stories from the official Xinhua news agency. And YouTube, on which videos of demonstrations in Tibet were posted, has been blocked.
This reality presents businesses with some hard choices. It's impossible to ignore a market of more than a billion people, including a fast-growing cohort of Internet users numbering perhaps 200 million or more. But if the cost of doing business involves truckling to censorship to placate a repressive regime, the price may be too high. (China is not the only nation that engages in these practices, but its size and technological sophistication make it a flashpoint for this debate.) And this conundrum doesn't apply only to publishers or Web merchants. It affects every company that advertises online or hosts content on a site that may be blocked.
Decisions on cross-border trade used to be made at the government level--or applied only to huge multinational corporations. But the Net puts all kinds of power once reserved for central authorities in the hands of smaller entities, even individuals. In this context, business decisions can become moral ones. And a lot of famous names, including the big American search and portal firms, have decided that playing ball in China is better than missing out on the opportunity that country represents.
Now the group Human Rights Watch is creating a code of conduct for dealing with Chinese censorship of the Internet. The organization says some big companies don't wait for government pressure before blocking potentially problematic information, and that they help the government by testing the so-called "Great Firewall," which keeps information away from Chinese citizens. The code is expected to be ready by late spring, well ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August, which brought heightened scrutiny of China's behavior even before the flare-up in Tibet.
It can be argued that some engagement with a tightly controlled society is better than no engagement, and that businesses exist to make money for their shareholders and not to be agents of social change. In any case, the Internet makes once-distant issues impossible to avoid.