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Portals to oppression

June 29, 2008

Web companies' compliance with Chinese censorship is a betrayal of
western values and may prove bad for business
Alastair Harper,
June 26, 2008

Largely unreported in the British press last week was the decision to
grant a Chinese web portal with the exclusive rights to stream
footage of this summer's Olympic games. Meanwhile, as the New York
Times reports, foreign television companies still await permission to
broadcast any shots outside the stadiums this summer., the
lucky stream winner has a long and detailed history of being
complicit with the Communist party's requests for censorship of the
material that can be reached through their websites.

Reporters Without Border have previously singled out the portal for
how willing it has been to cooperate with the government. Not that
Sohu are about to burst into tears: having worked so hard with the
government to ensure the great leaps forward in Chinese society were
not derailed by those nefarious blogging types, the extremely
valuable digital rights to the games were safely in the bag.

It's hard to realise just how easy it is to limit the output of
modern technology. Remember back to March 25 in Greece when
Jean-François Julliard, a member of Paris-based Reporters Without
Borders, rushed over the barrier separating him from the president of
Beijing's Olympic committee. He was not seen by viewers of China's
state-run TV. They were not aware that he had unfolded his protest
banner showing the Olympic rings as handcuffs. At his first
appearance the Chinese news station turned on a tape of a Chinese
official being interviewed earlier in the day. Chinese citizens
attempting to see why the footage had suddenly changed would find no
information on the heavily censored internet content available to
them. They would certainly not be able to access the BBC News
website,, or even the fly in the ointment that is Comment is free.

Each individual ISP in China is required by law to employ
investigators who inspect the content of websites, blogs and
chatrooms located on their servers. This is alongside the thousands
of state-employed web censors who constantly run algorithms to
identify and destroy what they perceive as dangerous content.
Google's modifications to its search engine in China that prevented
results appearing for entries such as "Free Tibet" was seen as
indicative of western technology companies' compliance with this
Chinese censorship.

China does not just censor the information going in to the country.
In 2005 Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist, forwarded to a friend in New
York an order his newspaper had received from the Chinese government
not to report on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square
massacre. He was reported by his email provider, the Hong Kong
division of Yahoo, and is currently serving a 10-year prison
sentence. Reporters Without Borders have clamed that they have
evidence revealing Yahoo as being responsible for providing the
Chinese government with information on Jiang Lijun, who was
imprisoned in 2003 for publishing pro-democracy writing online. They
are, as the House of Representatives' chairman on Africa, global
human rights and international operations has declared,
"accommodating a dictatorship".

China is not alone. While Africa has a comparatively tiny number of
internet users (an estimated 2-3%, or 23 million, of the African
population have access to a connection), many African countries,
despite perceiving its economic benefits, find themselves confused by
the wild freedom of the internet. For many developing countries the
natural impulse is to censor.

Along with selling them weapons and energy, China has carried on its
unhealthy relationship with Zimbabwe by offering them internet
censorship support, which just makes me wonder what sort of computer
geek gets employed by repressive regimes. Do they have "I'm with the
dark side of the force" T-shirts?

Others in North Africa, as in the west, are more concerned with
morals than politics. Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch, uses
the internet to entrap and then prosecute homosexuals. Tunisia
doesn't censor but, coming the other way, approves what websites are
suitable, hugely limiting the use of the internet to the majority of
their citizens and creating a rather impractical workload for any
government department. Approving the internet is no small task.

Any state's attempt to get to grips with technology can be farcical.
Just look at the NHS's supercomputers, which, by the time they
appear, will presumably be a couple of BBC Acorns frozen on a game of
Frogger. What can make a difference is when technology companies help
these governments. The important thing for those concerned with
freedom from censorship is to not make it economically rewarding, as
it has been for, to help these governments.

While both Google and Yahoo have suffered over recent years for
supporting Chinese government requests, the pressure needs to
increase for companies to avoid being identified as collaborating
with state repression. The mission should be to make the management,
the investors and the shareholders suddenly more nervous about the
economics of helping such nations. As one advocate put it bluntly, it
is about being able to "convince companies that helping oppress
one-fifth of humanity does not make good business sense".
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