For some years now, the Internet has been a battleground between freedom of expression and censorship. Bloggers have been taken into custody for publishing their opinions in China, Iran and Egypt, among other places.
In China particularly-and motivated by what could only be corporate greed-three flagship American tech companies-Yahoo, Google and Microsoft-have sadly been the aiders and abetters of this totalitarian repression. In September 2005, I wrote on my blog:
First we learned Microsoft was cooperating with Chinese authorities in suppressing words like “democracy” in Microsoft’s new blogging software. Now we learn the once-trendy Yahoo may be also helping out the Beijing Apparatchiks in an even more insidious manner. According to Reporters Without Borders, they have been aiding the Chinese government in revealing the identities of dissidents!
In the case of Yahoo, their cooperation in providing an IP address to Chinese authorities led to a ten-year sentence for journalist Shi Tao for “divulging state secrets abroad”.
Google too has caved in to the Chinese at times, but lately seems to have reformed itself to some degree. They are not involved in the latest development in which twenty blog service providers-including Yahoo and Microsoft–signed a “self-discipline” pact with the Internet Society of China.
What does that mean? Well, to begin with, it puts an end to anonymous blogging in China. But I’ll let Reporters Without Borders, who is out front on the story, explain:
“The Chinese government has yet again forced Internet sector companies to cooperate on sensitive issues – in this case, blogger registration and blog content,” the press freedom organisation said. “As they already did with website hosting services, the authorities have given themselves the means to identify those posting ‘subversive’ content by imposing a self-discipline pact.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “This decision will have grave consequences for the Chinese blogosphere and marks the end of anonymous blogging. A new wave of censorship and repression seems imminent, above all in the run-up to the Communist Party of China’s next congress.”
Now I am not always a fan of anonymous blogging in democratic countries. It can be a recipe for taking pot shots at people without assuming responsibility. But in totalitarian societies, where the results of free expression can be incarceration or worse, it is another matter.
We have already seen this happen with Yahoo, which is currently being sued by the wife of another imprisoned Chinese dissident. The previous case of Shi Tao is about to go before a Congressional committee.
Microsoft itself seems troubled by its own actions. According to a report in PCWorld:
Although it signed the document, Microsoft doesn’t agree with some of its recommendations, such as requiring people to register with their real names for the company’s Windows Live Spaces blog hosting and publishing service.
So Microsoft has signed a document with which it doesn’t agree. Yahoo, as far as we know, has made no statement at all about its concurrence. Perhaps they are afraid of the following:
In its statement, the group [Reporters Without Borders] quotes Internet Society of China Secretary General Huang Chengqing as saying: “Blog service providers who allow the use of pseudonyms may be more attractive to bloggers, but they will be punished by the government if they fail to screen illegal information.”
Whatever that is; they don’t define it… The Chinese government is also censoring blog comments and search engines.
Shame on Microsoft and Yahoo for acquiescing.
Perhaps you do not agree with me that it is for us to judge American corporations that are beholding to their stockholders to achieve maximum profit. I would point out, however, that these two companies are Internet giants that control the free flow of ideas in a manner undreamed of in history. Moreover, in this instance, they are abetting the control of that flow in the most populous country on Earth, one that is already the second greatest Internet user to the US and is growing as an economic and military power at a nearly unprecedented rate.
We ignore free expression in China at our peril. Besides the obvious rights and safety of the bloggers involved, a clamp down on information coming from the People’s Republic could affect areas as diverse as recent allegations of lead poisoning in children’s toys imported to us to the monitoring of our copyrights and patents, so often disregarded. As China continues to grow, so much will be at stake in commerce and international relations, it’s almost beyond comprehension.
So what is to be done, as a famous Russian once asked?
We could go after Microsoft and the more repellent (in this regard) Yahoo, but they are but two of twenty. The result might be the freezing out of American companies and yet more censorship.
Another tack would be for bloggers to launch a campaign to publicly boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But let’s be honest. We don’t have nearly the clout for that. (And speaking personally, it would be hypocritical. Being mildly agoraphobic, I wasn’t planning on going anyway.)
But there is something we can do. It’s clear these Olympics are of tremendous significance to China. Fortunes are being spent to make Beijing ready. This is their moment to emerge as a global power on an equal footing, at least, with the West. Attacks now on their lack of freedom would be a great embarrassment to them.
It is worth noting that the new agreements signed with the blog service providers, ominous as they are, are just a tad less onerous than previous documents. They employ euphemisms like “encourage,” an indication how some in the Chinese leadership are sensitive to the weapon of public opinion.
We bloggers wield that weapon. The Chinese government is afraid of us; otherwise they would not seek to censor us.
So I would like to invite my fellow bloggers to join me in some verbal “weaponizing.”
From this moment on, I will not write about the Beijing Olympics unless the subject at hand is censorship and repression in China. And – unless the Chinese government changes its policies – when the Olympics do come, I will not blog about them at all. I will take the opportunity to write as often as I can about the lack of Freedom of Speech on the Chinese Internet and on the suppression of bloggers and journalists in that country.
I hope we could all do this together, especially since this is not an issue of right or left. It is about Freedom of Speech, something upon which the vast majority of the blogosphere can agree. We can reach across the aisle on this one, if others are willing. So…
… about those Beijing Olympics – they’re a propaganda sham until the people of China have Freedom of the Press.
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