21 July 2005

If this isn't illegal, maybe it should be

American technology firms like Microsoft, Cisco, and Yahoo help China suppress free speech and facilitate its operation of enforcing a repressive police state, including jailing of political dissidents.
Without question, China's Internet filtering regime is "the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world," in the words of a recent report by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The system involves the censorship of Web logs, search engines, chat rooms and e-mail by "thousands of public and private personnel." It also involves Microsoft Inc., as Chinese bloggers discovered last month. Since early June, Chinese bloggers who post messages containing a forbidden word -- "Dalai Lama," for example, or "democracy" -- receive a warning: "This message contains a banned expression, please delete." It seems Microsoft has altered the Chinese version of its blog tool, MSN Spaces, at the behest of Chinese government. Bill Gates, so eloquent on the subject of African poverty, is less worried about Chinese free speech.

But he isn't alone: Because Yahoo Inc. is one of several companies that have signed a "public pledge on self-discipline," a Yahoo search in China doesn't turn up all of the (politically sensitive) results. Cisco Systems Inc., another U.S. company, has also sold hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment to China, including technology that blocks traffic not only to banned Web sites, but even to particular pages within an otherwise accessible site.

Until now, most of these companies have defended themselves on the grounds that there are side benefits -- a Microsoft spokesman has said that "we're helping millions of people communicate, share stories, share photographs and build relationships" -- or on the grounds that they can't control technology anyway. A Cisco spokesman told me that this is the "same equipment technology that your local library uses to block pornography," and besides, "we're not doing anything illegal."

But as U.S. companies become more deeply involved in China, and as technology itself progresses, those lines may begin to sound weaker. Over the past couple of years, Harry Wu, a Chinese human rights activist and former political prisoner, has carefully tracked Western corporate cooperation with Chinese police and internal security, and in particular with a Chinese project called "Golden Shield," a high-tech surveillance system that has been under construction for the past five years. Although the company won't confirm it, Wu says, Cisco representatives in China have told him that the company has contracts to provide technology to the police departments of at least 31 provinces. Some of that technology may be similar to what the writer and former businessman Ethan Gutmann describes in his recent book, "Losing the New China: A Story of American Commerce, Desire and Betrayal." Gutmann -- whose account is also bitterly disputed by Cisco ("He's getting a lot of press out of this," complained the spokesman) -- claims to have visited a Shanghai trade fair where Cisco was advertising its ability to "integrate judicial networks, border security, and vertical police networks" and more generally its willingness to build Golden Shield.

It really is an odd arrangement of affairs, where lobbyist entities have campaigned for laws favoring prosecution of those creating software that might be used for purposes of copyright infringment (and those laws have been upheld by the highest court in the nation), whereas, in a cruel twist, software companies can purposefully aid and abett a totalitarian regime in its efforts to clamp down freedom of expression. Microsoft, Yahoo, Cisco, etc. know full well how their product is to be used there, and employees and subcontractors are directly involved in implementing, installing and training activities. This is totally unlike the purchase of goods where the original manufacturer has no knowledge of whose hands the product fell into sales of computer software and hardware (at corporate/government levels), are always accompanied by warranties, help desk support, training, service level agreements, licensing, etc. It's a far cry from even a free software offering that the original developer has no contact with the user, and there is no pledge or guarantee on the functional status of the software product.

Historically, corporations like IBM have received a free pass for these brazen offenses when they knew full well the intent of the end user who purchased their product.

This is another perfect illustration of how capitalism and freedom are not mutually coupled, as some like to preach. Capitalism is amoral, only concerned with the flow of profits. Any blood that is spilled in the process is a troublesome detail to be swept aside, trivialized, or in many cases, covered up.

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