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.
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.
To that end, let me offer a look into a future that travels down the economic road the Chinese are already on. If the Chinese economic “miracle” doesnt hit a wall, as happened in Japan and Korea, I see two developing scenarios:
In the first, the economic liberalization of China is followed by democratic reforms demanded by a growing middle class. This is a view recently voiced by Donald Rumsfeld, among others. The SecDef recently told reporters that he believes political liberalization is following economic changes in China by about 15 years.
If Rumsfeld is right, American economic involvement with China is a very good thing and will, over time, promote democratization. Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Cisco, etc., working with the Chinese may not be a perfect thing today, but over time the involvement with these American companies cant help but improve pushing China toward some form of democracy and greater openness.
The other possibility, and this is a nightmare, is that Chinas economic growth wont be matched by political reform. Rather, China will remain a totalitarian regime but will become a dictatorship with incredible economic power. Such a powerful China could become the greatest threat that Western democracies have ever faced.
Dealing with China is doubtless a gamble. But if we dont do it, other nations will and American companies will be left out of what could become the worlds largest IT market. But, in doing business with the Chinese, U.S. companies have a responsibility to support the American agenda of promoting democracy and human rights.
How to accomplish this is less clear. Given that progress in China may require one step backward for every two forward, I am not ready to criticize Microsoft, et al., too harshly. At least, not yet.
Human rights groups should be vigilant in their monitoring of American businesses working in China and elsewhere. American companies should be sensitive to these concerns and help the Beijing government move toward a day when the only Chinese content filters will be those used by parents to protect their children from Web sites no child should see.
Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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