Regulate Companies Which Help Censorship?

from the won't-happen dept

Seth Finkelstein writes "Do Internet companies need to be regulated to ensure they respect free expression? The recent case of Microsoft closing down a journalist's blog under pressure from the Chinese authorities once again shows that some Internet sector companies do not respect freedom of expression when operating in repressive countries. Reporters Without Borders proposes six concrete ways to make these companies behave ethically. These recommendations are addressed to the US government and US legislators because all the companies named in this document are based in the United States. Nonetheless, they concern all democratic countries and have therefore been sent to European Union officials and to the Secretary General of the OECD as well." This seems incredibly unlikely to happen. While the situation with US companies helping China with censorship is problematic, it seems quite unlikely that any regulation will come about to stop it (either self-imposed or via government). Instead, it seems likely that solutions will present themselves in other ways. Already people have worked on tools to let those in China get around the censorship -- and all of the press following Microsoft's closure of that blog means that anyone with anything important to say in China knows not to use Microsoft. The end result is likely to harm Microsoft more than any set of government regulations.
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  • identicon
    Chris Wuestefeld, 9 Jan 2006 @ 11:18am

    Cultural norms

    the situation with US companies helping China with censorship is problematic

    It sounded like a problem to me, too -- at first. But then it was pointed out that such behavior is customary in the USA as well. For example, sites dealing in kiddy pr0n will be removed without any questions.

    You'll naturally reply that kiddy pr0n is evil, so of course those sites get taken down. But try think of it without any cultural prejudices. What makes our revulsion of pedophilia any more imperative than the PRC's need to manage their country? Remember that a drive to individuality rather than collectivism is itself a Western value.

    Footnote: hopefully the drive to individualism is still a western value.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Ann, 9 Jan 2006 @ 11:38am

      Re: Cultural norms

      "What makes our revulsion of pedophilia any more imperative than the PRC's need to manage their country? Remember that a drive to individuality rather than collectivism is itself a Western value.
      Footnote: hopefully the drive to individualism is still a western value."
      Your idea of individualism is a few communist party members forcing their own ideas on more than a billion people? This isn't about 'cultural prejudices' - the question here is whether US companies should help the Chinese Communist Party censor information in order to trick and control the Chinese people.
      You're arguing for repression and censorship in the name of individuality. Individualism isn't something that a minority forces on everyone else, with the help of guns and threats. The people of China should be allowed to each decide for him- or herself what to read and who to believe.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2006 @ 12:03pm

        Re: Cultural norms

        The Chinese people are not a bunch of cowards or idiots. They choose to live how they want. Because their culture places greater importance on the collective good than on induvidual freedom westerners always assume someone must be oppressing them. you think everyone in China should be allowed to decide for him or herself what to read and who to believe, the Chinese as a whole feel differently.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Ann, 10 Jan 2006 @ 5:21am

          Re: Cultural norms

          How exactly have the Chinese people chosen the Chinese Communist Party? Are you saying that they wanted to be killed by the tens of millions in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution? What about the recent murders in Dongzhou and how they were covered up - do you have evidence that the Chinese people wanted that? Do they want the AIDs epidemic, which was largely spread by their corrupt, incompetent government? Were they happy with the government's handling of SARs? Do the Tibetan people want the CCP to continue to occupy and control their country? Do the Chinese people enjoy the forced abortions and forced sterilizations, and approve of the government selling the body parts of the thousands each year that they execute?

          What evidence do you have that the Chinese people want any of this? When have they freely been allowed to choose? And, in terms of whether their information should be censored, the people could choose for themselves to simply avoid websites that talked about freedom or democracy, if that was their choice. You're saying that the government should be able to prevent the people from hearing certain ideas even when they want to, but when did the Chinese people choose this?

          And to say that the Chinese Communist Party rule is justified because people in China care about the greater good is bizarre. It would be hard to find a ruling party with a worse track record. Yes, they would claim that their rate of economic change for the last decade or two has been pretty good, but they were just repairing the massive economic damage that they themselves had spent decades inflicting on the country.

          No, the Chinese people aren't cowards or idiots, but they have guns pointed to their heads and they know what will happen to their children if they're not careful. Again, the most recent example is Dongzhou. To talk about choice in that situation is nauseating.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Chris Wuestefeld, 10 Jan 2006 @ 6:07am

            Are we superior?

            How exactly have the Chinese people chosen the Chinese Communist Party? etc...

            I never said that the PRC was right. But it's none of our business -- let the Chinese people determine their own form of government. At the very least, let's not start a war with them to force them to acknowledge the obvious superiority of our own system :)

            Now turn your question around: have we Americans asked for the DMCA and other stupid copyright laws, the violations of which will result in the immediate unplugging of a web site?

            The point is that MS (or Google, or whatever) isn't knuckling under to the evil powers of Communism. Rather, they're knuckling under to the evil powers of government across the board, in every nation.

            You've got two choices:

            1. Acknowledge that government in all its forms is heavy-handed and interferes with the right of people to live their own lives;
              or
            2. Assert that our system is inherently superior to all others, and further, that we have such a moral imperative to press it upon others that the end justifies all means necessary. (But if you believe this, be prepared to provide a reasoned argument to support it)

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 10 Jan 2006 @ 7:28am

            Re: Cultural norms

            The Chinese chose the Comunists over the Nationalists in a very long and difficult revolution. Mao may have been a meglomaniac, and not a good leader, and people did die during his reign, but they dies in an effort to modernize their country. The had been oppressed by foriegners since the day the forigners showed up and they were willing to make huge scarifices to make sure that it did not happen again.

            The people were killed in Dongzhou while protesting the building of a power plant. The fact that the police were authorized to fire on protesters is another example of putting the collective good (the need for a new power plant) above the rights of induviduals. It is a different systm than the one we are used to.

            Nobody wants AIDS, and no nation wants an AIDS epidemic, but it happens. China is still a struggling nation, with far more people than any other. The do not have the social or institutional infrastructure to handle massive disease outbreaks. Neither did the US in 1918 when the flu hit and killed half a million people. Same with SARS.

            Tibet is historicaly part of greater China. No other government in the world questions China's right to maintain control over Tibet, except maybe India.

            Forced abortions and streilizations seem hrrible to us, but in a vastly overpopulated nation, with nowhere enough resources to feed all the people, you have to do something. Is it better to starve children after they are born?

            If you don't have a western/Christian/Jewish/Muslim background, cutting up dead people and selling off parts may not be a problem, especially if it helps people.

            Again, the people chose their government in a recent revolution. Many of the problems China is facing right now are related to how fast the country is changing, it is opening up to the rest of the world in a way it never was before. Too much change can destabilize societies and end up hurting people. Putting the collective good ahead of your personal desires may mean allowing your access (and everyone else's) to be limited. By tempering that access you can ease into the changes, and not end up starving millions more people.

            The Communists have the mandate of heaven, when the mandate is gone the rule of the party will end. That is how China has worked for 5000 years. If they want to change, it is thier country, their problem. It is not the place for some 200 year old nation to come in and tell them they are wrong.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Ann, 11 Jan 2006 @ 11:16am

              Re: Cultural norms

              "The Chinese chose the Comunists over the Nationalists in a very long and difficult revolution. Mao may have been a meglomaniac, and not a good leader, and people did die during his reign, but they dies in an effort to modernize their country."
              We're going in circles. How did the Chinese people choose the communists? The communists took power by force. And they died because Mao was a pathetic moron in terms of economics (although he was brilliant at politics and warfare), and because Mao didn't care about the people, only about his own power. Mao knew that millions were dying for no reason and he could have stopped it at once, since the deaths served no economic purpose and were totally self-inflicted, but he thought it would be better for him personally to allow them all to die, rather than to admit that he might have pushed mistaken policies.

              "The had been oppressed by foriegners since the day the forigners showed up and they were willing to make huge scarifices to make sure that it did not happen again."
              In terms of oppression by foreigners, do you mean the Chings (Manchurian), or are you going back to the Mongols? It's safe to say that much of their weakness and stagnation was due to the Ching dynasty, although the stagnation began earlier.
              "The people were killed in Dongzhou while protesting the building of a power plant. The fact that the police were authorized to fire on protesters is another example of putting the collective good (the need for a new power plant) above the rights of induviduals. It is a different systm than the one we are used to."
              The plant was already built, wasn't it? The protestors couldn't have stopped the plant and didn't need to be slaughtered. And what about the government cover-up and intimidation?
              "Nobody wants AIDS, and no nation wants an AIDS epidemic, but it happens."
              And it happens much faster if the government knowingly fails to screen blood. A huge and unnecessary part of the spread of AIDs in China was from those selling their blood plasma, who were given back contaminated blood. This went on for years and years. They officially outlawed it in 1998 but didn't attempt to enforce it. But I guess that giving someone AIDs to save a few reminbi falls under your definition of killing a few million for the collective good.

              "Tibet is historicaly part of greater China."
              Name one point in history when Tibet was ruled by a Chinese emporer. There was a time when both China and Tibet were occupied by Mongolians (does this also make Russia and India a historical part of greater China?) and there was a time when the Manchurian emporer that controlled China had a religious relationship with the rulers of Tibet, and there was even a brief time when Tibet conquored China. But there was never a time when Chinese conquored Tibet and never a time when they operated as all part of the same country. China attacked and continues to occupy Tibet because it's powerful and it wants to, but there's no historical backing for the claim that they've been one in the past, not even briefly.
              "Forced abortions and streilizations seem hrrible to us, but in a vastly overpopulated nation, with nowhere enough resources to feed all the people, you have to do something. Is it better to starve children after they are born?"
              It was Mao's bright idea to aim at overpopulation (every stomach comes with a pair of hands). But there would be no need for children to starve if they would just modify their economy (which they're partially doing now). China has plenty of resources, the problem is simply that their system uses them poorly.

              "If you don't have a western/Christian/Jewish/Muslim background, cutting up dead people and selling off parts may not be a problem, especially if it helps people."
              But the reason that people in China don't donate their body parts, even for money, is because it goes strongly against their culture (far more than against the cultures of the west). Would you really not have any hesitation about allowing a government to round up and kill anyone they want, and then to sell their body parts? And if this is nothing to be ashamed of, why aren't they more open about it?
              "Putting the collective good ahead of your personal desires may mean allowing your access (and everyone else's) to be limited. By tempering that access you can ease into the changes, and not end up starving millions more people."
              Again, it was this system of focusing on the "collective good" (i.e. the good of the Chinese Communist Party) that caused the starvation of tens of millions. Their track record is unbelievably bad.
              "The Communists have the mandate of heaven, when the mandate is gone the rule of the party will end. That is how China has worked for 5000 years. If they want to change, it is thier country, their problem. It is not the place for some 200 year old nation to come in and tell them they are wrong."
              The way China has worked for 5,000 years was that the powerful ruled (as in most countries in the past), and the rest had no choice. I'm not suggesting that we try to force them to change, but it's nonsense to claim that the people have chosen this, or that we have evidence that they want this. And it's possible to come up with objective criteria that indicate which governments and systems have worked better in the past. The clearest lesson of the 20th century is that communism is a horrible system, from every possible angle - bad economically, bad in terms of human rights, bad in that people will risk their lives to escape.
              All I'm advocating is that the Chinese people should be allowed to get information from outside, so that they can (hopefully someday) decide for themselves. You've offered no evidence that the Chinese people have chosen the Communist Party, or censorship. So why shouldn't American consumers, if they choose, put pressure on American companies to avoid helping and supporting brutal dictators? The American companies would be free to choose between those American consumers and the foreign thugs. And you would be free to offer your support to companies that side with the brutal thugs, if that's what you prefer. You apparently oppose free choice in China. Do you also oppose it in the US?

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        It's the LAW, 9 Jan 2006 @ 1:26pm

        Re: Cultural norms

        Really, when you stop and think about it, Microsoft is obeying the laws of the country they're operating in. Imposing Western cultural values and laws on China is incredibly arrogent.

        What if a Russian company showed up and started giving away MP3s (Russian copyright law does not apply to digital music - as yet)? How do you think the government and other US companies would react? As a multinational company, you HAVE TO FOLLOW THE LAWS OF THE COUNTRY YOU OPERATE IN. If you don't....well, then you're just another self-important, arrogent American.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          dkw, 9 Jan 2006 @ 1:58pm

          Re: Cultural norms

          Two comments: You are absolutely correct that a corporation must follow the laws of the coutry it is operating in face penalties - and ultimately - expulsion from that country. Legalistically, that is the question.

          Ethically, companies need to decide who they will do business with and we as consumers need to decide which companies we will support (read as fund) based on their ehtical stance.

          It is up to those of us that care to attempt to get MS to boycott China - if we feel strongly enough about it - by boycotting MS.

          Really, this is not something that the US government should be legislating.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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