American Firms Help China Keep Online Dissent At Bay

by | Sep 22, 2005

Christian Science Monitor: As China began to go online, observers made brash predictions that the Internet would pry the country open. Cyberspace, the thinking went, would prove too vast and wild for Beijing to keep under its thumb.

Now these early assumptions are being sharply revised. Under an authoritarian government determined to control information, China has grown a new version of the Internet. As former US President Bill Clinton noted recently, China’s Internet is very unlike the cauldron of dissenting voices that is the hallmark of the Internet familiar to Americans. Instead, it’s heavily filtered, monitored, censored, and most of all, focused on making money.

The success of Beijing’s strategy – to harness the network’s business potential while minimizing it as a conduit for free speech – has some concerned that it has established a medium and new censoring tools that other countries can adopt.

“The biggest danger is that China creates a very large market and testing ground for surveillance and filtering software,” says Danny O’Brien with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

As Chinese Web companies seek to enlarge their markets particularly in developing countries, the question looms about whether they will export their values as well. Chinese tech firms have an eye on emerging markets in Africa, South America, and India. These firms are probably peddling censorship tools, says the free-speech advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

Part of the Chinese success has been co-opting American tech companies with the lure of its lucrative consumer market. Microsoft blocks bloggers from posting politically sensitive words in Chinese; Google shuts down for several minutes when a user in China looks too many times for forbidden words like “Falun Gong;” and Yahoo recently admitted turning over private e-mail information that helped lead to the jailing of a Chinese journalist.

“I do not like the outcome,” Yahoo chief Jerry Yang said of incident. But it’s a decision he said he had to make when he decided to do business here.

Unlike other authoritarian regimes, notably North Korea and Cuba, which depend on keeping the Web away from the people, China has promoted access – a fact that initially surprised observers. Chinese leaders, says Julien Pain of Reporters Without Borders, knew they needed the Internet to attract global business and trade. Access is abundant and cheap, and those who cannot afford a home computer rely on more than 2 million Cybercafes nationwide. An estimated 134 million Chinese will be online by the end of this year, according to the Beijing-based research firm Analysys International, and nearly one-quarter use broadband.

The country’s Internet Service Providers remain controlled by state-run companies, giving the government a window on every user’s connection. It’s an open secret that around 30,000 telecom workers are dedicated to policing the net as part of the country’s “Great Firewall.”

Thanks to R Conversation for the pointer.