American Censors in China

Opinion: Is there anything wrong with U.S. companies such as Microsoft helping China filter the Internet? The answer is less clear than it appears at first blush.

Should American companies help China filter the Internet? Thats a question that came up twice in my life over the past week. In one case, I think a small Utah company is doing the right thing, while in the other I think Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Cisco are putting profits over human rights.

Both of these groups provide software and/or services that impact what Chinese citizens can do on the Internet. Whats the difference? And could Microsoft, et al., really not be so bad after all?

In the first case, a company called ContentWatch is doing the right thing by offering its award-winning Web filtering software to Chinese parents. When I first heard about this, I was concerned the software would be used by school officials to filter the Internet for students. Theres nothing wrong with this, per se, as theres a lot on the Internet that no child should see, regardless of nationality. Porn, it seems, is as big a problem in the Peoples Republic as anyplace else.

So it makes sense that Chinese parents and schools, just like those in the United States, would want filtering software to protect children from objectionable content. Initially, I was concerned that the software would have hidden inside it some additional filters for religious and political content.

To allay this fear, developers at ContentWatch explained to me that filtering criteria is hard-coded into their product and the source code will never leave the United States. Yes, it will be customized for Chinese customers, but I have assurances the filtering will be no more (or less) rigorous than that sold to American customers.

This gives us an example of where an American company helping the Chinese filter Internet content is a good thing and something we should be proud of. Thats helping Chinese parents carry out their responsibilities.

The other side of the coin also came up this week, when a group called Reporters Without Borders criticized Microsoft for filtering certain words from Chinese blog posts at the request of the Beijing government. In doing so, Microsoft joined Google, Yahoo and Cisco in changing their products to meet Chinas repressive demands.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read Chris Nolans take on the issue.

Its hard for me to support any American businesses helping the Chinese—or anyone else—censor the Internets political and religious content. The Chinese people deserve freedom of speech and expression, just like everyone else. But, since the Chinese are going to filter the Internet regardless of Microsoft, et al., perhaps those companies efforts should be viewed in a broader context.

Next Page: Which road will China take?