Web Censorship Choices Pit Business Against Politics

Opinion: Google says its decision to edit some searches for users in China is part of the cost of doing business there. But China is only one important testing ground as the conversation about what sorts of speech will be allowed on the Internet go

Right now, its something of an esoteric argument between human rights activists, civil libertarians and lawyers. But soon, the international conversation about what sorts of speech will be allowed on the Internet is going to effect tech businesses around the globe.

Much of the Internets future growth is going to occur outside the United States—a point not lost on civil liberty and human rights activists. They see a chance to push home their free-speech messages, and theyre not shy about taking it.

Cory Doctorow, outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, did just that last week at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, by questioning Google board member and venture capitalist John Doerr about the companys policy toward China. You can bet there will be more conversations like that in the years to come.

For centralized and authoritarian governments where public forums have been tightly regulated, the Web presents a problem thats only getting worse. With broadcast media, governments could flip a switch or negotiate favorable terms and know that they could continue to maintain some control of the flow of information.

Thats essentially what News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch did when he wanted to enter the Chinese market. That deal is generally seen by human rights activists as a precedent—and not a good one—for media companies wanting to do business in China. And China is seen as charting a course for restrictive governments wanting to do international business.

Deals are being made, but the laws under which everyone is working are anything but clear. In late August, a district court ruled that Yahoo didnt have to comply with French law on sites it operated outside of France that were selling products banned in France, in this case Nazi memorabilia.

Although good for U.S. companies, that decision is probably temporary, grounded as it is in procedural matters. Besides, the behavior of companies operating overseas seems to cut against the grain of the court ruling.

Late last month, Google conceded that it has edited some searches for users in China, a decision the company said was part of the cost of doing business in China and abiding by Chinese law.

Yahoo negotiated the terms of doing business with China several years ago when it agreed to Chinas "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry."

There hasnt been an overwhelming hue and cry over these decisions. But there has been lots of quiet unease. Businesspeople are never comfortable when politics enter the picture, and the politics of censorship rings deep with the liberal-minded libertarians at the head of most tech companies. The decisions that need to be made—business over politics or politics over business—arent going to be easy ones.

Business is, after all, business. "Everybody wants market share, says Sara Davis, a researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy organization that monitors censorship in China. Davis and others would like to see companies cooperate to hold the line against government attempts to curtail free speech on the Web.

And its worth remembering that whats trivial or commonplace in the West—a Web site giving information about HIV infection and how the disease is spread—can be considered politically sensitive. This was the case in China, which downplayed its AIDS epidemic for years.

The argument that businesses must follow the laws of the nations where theyre doing business, like the one made by Google in adopting its editing policy for Chinese users, is one thats easily answered, Davis says. "There are international laws about freedom of expression that should trump domestic laws," she says.

That approach could help Yahoo in France—the company could press its free-speech claim and use international law to overrule the French court. But in China, it could hurt Google and Yahoo, since the Chinese government could maintain a preference for its own laws over international agreements and block the companies from accessing the nations computer users.

Right now, much of the online censorship and access talk is focusing on China, but that could change, Davis says. Claiming the fastest-growing Internet use in the world, the Chinese are striking smart deals—for them—that other authoritarian governments are copying, she says. "China is in certain ways the model."

eWEEK.com Technology and Politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog.


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