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February 16, 2006

CONGRESS GETS CHINESE INTERNET ISSUES ALL WRONG

The huddled masses of China should be breathing easier today. They should be rising up, lighting torches and throwing off their shackles because now the full force of the United States Congress is coming down like a ton of pissed off bricks on the heads of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems that have ratted out Chinese dissidents by giving Chinese cops dissident IP addresses and the contents of their inboxes. Worse than that, they've even blocked political content (like pictures of Apple spokesmodel, the Dalai Lama) that the Chinese authorities deem objectionable. And now, in the halls of Congress...A DAY OF RECKONING! (lightning bolt! Sha-pow!)

So what has been the reaction of actual, real live Chinese people to this display of righteous wrath on their behalf?

"Who cares?" writes blogger EastSouthWestNorth.

For all the hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing in Congress over the internet companies' "abhorrent actions" (Rep. Tom Lantos), the reality is that this just doesn't matter. Although it has given Congress a chance to cut loose with the verbal fireworks. Here's Lantos again:

“When you type in the words 'oxymoron' you find the names of Google, Microsoft Yahoo and Cisco….What congress is looking for is real spine and willingness to stand up to outrageous demands of a totalitarian regime.”

The totalitarian regime in question has 110 million internet users. It may be a totalitarian regime but it's a totalitarian regime with the world's second largest internet market, and that's with only 10% of its population online. They call me Mr. Totalitarian Regime, Lantos. What companies are learning, over and over again, is that China cannot be ignored. It is a huge market with oodles of potential and the Chinese government knows it, causing it to become as desireable and as coy as a vestal virgin. China plays a tune, and everybody dances, to use a less sexualized metaphor.

The problem with the Congressional hearings (despite being ridiculously weighted towards an anti-China point-of-view) is that they offer the soothing balm of righteous condemnation without offering a single practical solution.

Companies cannot do business in China and ignore a warrant from the Chinese courts to produce information about a user any more than a Chinese company can do business in the US and ignore a court order from the US courts. Chinese commentators have played up the irony that the US is deriding China's suppression of freedom of speechwhile simultaneously suppressing additional Abu Ghraib photos. But this issue is not about freedom of speech, it's about what legal rights a foreign company has in another country. To do business overseas you must abide by the laws of the country in which you do business. The problem isn't that the internet companies obeyed a court order, but that the court order was issued in the first place. But if you're waiting for the Chinese government to change, don't hold your breath because you'll turn blue. And die. And rot away into dust. And the dust will die. And it will rot away into even smaller micro-dust. And so on.

The one intelligent issue the Congressional hearings have raised is what happens when a local law conflicts with an international law, or a higher law? This is the boogeyman of human rights  everywhere: it's legal to arrest and imprison dissidents, but is it right? Here you have to look at the question from a utlitarian point of view. Forget for a moment that Google, MSN and Yahoo aren't major players in the Chinese internet market, and consider the basic ethical question: is it better for the Chinese people for these companies to be in China or would it be better for the Chinese people if they left?

Most actual Chinese people seem to agree that it's better to have these companies in China even if they don't get to see 20 different versions of that photo of the guy standing in front of the tank. Access to restricted content is better than no access at all, and the blogosphere has been hugely liberating for China. As China cracks down on the print media, the blogosphere has erupted with protest and uncensored first person accounts of incidents and editorials dealing with things like the closing of Freezing Point magazine and the editorial purges at The Beijing News.

Every portal company in China has to provide more content (well, except AOL whose content has been woefully lame so far), every company provides email service and many of them provide IM service. In the short term, I think every non-Luddite would agree that the more access people have to cheap and easy p2p communication the more liberty those people enjoy. In the long term, each of these services must be monitored (here's a translation of an article about a day in the life of a Chinese internet cop) and monitoring is expensive. The more there is to be monitored the more expensive the monitoring gets, and the less effective it becomes. By asking these companies to leave China, Congress is actually undermining the cause of liberty. Holy oxymoron, Batman!

ImageThief, a Western blogger who works a PR job in China, believes that the big problem lies with the fact that these companies didn't make the limits of what they could and couldn't do in China public right from the start, and I tend to agree with him. If there had been no illusions from the beginning then there would be no grand disillusionment now. Working in China comes with restrictions. They aren't right, but they're necessary and it harms the Chinese people more to leave them isolated and cut off from their options.

The sounds of thunder and the wrath of legislators issuing from the hallowed halls of Congress is the sound of someone singing in the shower. It sounds good to the singer, but everyone else knows it's crap.

February 16, 2006 at 07:38 AM in News | Permalink

Comments

very interesting entry... and it makes perfect sense. The new generation of bloggers are definitely showing that their censorship is not flawless, which seems to be the image people have of the Communists there

Posted by: quadshock | Feb 16, 2006 5:56:48 PM

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