Friday, February 17, 2006

Internet Companies and Freedom of Expression

Congress conducted hearings on internet companies doing business in China this week, a story that was overlooked probably due to all the attention given to a certain fateful quail hunting trip. . .

There is a good article summarizing some of the testimony here.

Members of the committee made many strong points on the ethics of firms providing technologies that enhance a totalitarian regime's control of information. Congressman Tom Lantos made a particularly strong point after a Microsoft executive stated that there was nothing to be ashamed of when complying with Chinese Laws requiring censorship:

"Well, IBM complied with legal orders when they cooperated with Nazi Germany. Those were legal orders under the Nazi German system... Do you think that IBM during that period had something to be ashamed of?"
Indeed, this is a particularly strong analogy. IBM has been accused of providing technology that enhanced the Third Reich's abilityto logistically manage the Holocaust. While no American based internet corporation has been accused of doing anything so sinister in their dealings with the PRC, their eagerness to enter the lucrative Chinese market overrode many of the American values that allowed these companies to succeed in the first place.

I doubt that any of the legislation proposed as a result of these hearings will ever see the light of day, or that it would help to make the PRC freer even if it did. If companies like Yahoo or search engine Google were not allowed to filter Chinese web content, the PRC would find a technology company willing to do their bidding.

But it is good that the past and present activities of these companies are coming to light. Mutual funds, pension plans, and private investors will have to make decisions whether or not to invest their money in companies that are enabling totalitarianism. Consumers will have to do the same.

And yes, the technology platform of this blog (Blogger) is built and managed by Google. I thought about pulling up stakes on the Wilsonizer last month when I first read about Google's China antics. I stayed for three reasons: Google is not profiting from my use of their platform, since I don't pay them a cent for blogger services; I don't want to lose my small but loyal following of readers I've developed over the last three months; and finally, I am not so tech savvy that I could easily re-locate somewhere else and produce this blog so easily as Blogger makes it. That last one is a bit of a copout, but there you have it.

But that's just it. Blogger is easy! Google's blogger platform makes it simple to express ideas and opinions and exchange information. I find it hard to believe the company that can make it so easy to express one's self would be so complicit in censoring information and restricting freedom of expression elswehere.

In the long run, though, I think the censors will ultimately fail, in China and elsewhere. The technology to find loopholes through the iron curtain will outpace the ability of the totalitarian system to maintain it. I am sure the people in China who eventually throw off the yoke of government repression will long remember the technology companies who enabled that repression, too.

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