US Internet companies in China – “What if?”

This article from the NYT is worth being copied for posterity. Note the web sites that have been created to offer alternatives to Google, and the refusal of some site owners to take Google ads any longer. (And I admit, I am not one of them; I’m not one of the Boycott Google school of thought. I simply believe they are now just another US company doing what US companies do, with no claims, any more, to its once squeaky-clean image.)

It all goes back to Imagethief’s well-phrased question of some weeks ago:

But the question that situations –and excuses– like this raise for American tech-media companies is this: where is your ethical horizon? Every country has its own laws and regulations. Some are more egregious than others. Some are indefensible. When do a company’s values supercede its desire to make money and generate shareholder return? Does that point exist in the absence of public scrutiny? Perhaps some American tech-media companies would like to articulate what kind of “local laws and regulations” would push them too far?

Here’s the article, one of the few that really takes Will’s question seriously and explores it in gritty detail.

LET’S play “What if?”
Published: February 6, 2006

What if the Chinese authorities didn’t simply force Google to exclude sites like (the Human Rights Watch Web site) and from the Chinese version of its search engine results, or insist that Yahoo hop to whenever the government fancied the identity of one of its e-mail users, as the authorities have done?

What if they also stipulated that the chief executive of any Internet company doing business in China had to have “Mao Zedong — Luv U 4 Eva” tattooed across his back? Would the companies leave China?

The scary thing is, one might reasonably chew on that question longer than this one: What if Chinese law required Internet companies to reveal the identities of all users who forwarded really bad e-mail jokes, lame chain letters or any messages containing the terms “free speech,” “Tiananmen Square” or “Super Freak,” because such activities carried a 10-year prison term?

“With all due respect to the memory of Rick James, the king of funk,” an executive might say, “we must abide by the laws of the countries in which we operate.”

And what if — as a mark of good faith for being permitted to do business in what any rational observer has to admit is now the most tantalizing Internet and technology market on the planet — an executive from each company were required to assist, mano a mano, in the beating of an imprisoned blogger?

Nothing too strenuous, but you would have to make like you meant it.

What if no one had to know? They never would, right?

Yes, it’s an all too easy and not entirely fair game to play. The issues on the ground in China are complex, and there are plenty of people who believe that Bill Gates is right when he says, as he did last week when discussing the matter at a Microsoft-sponsored conference in Lisbon, that “the ability to really withhold information no longer exists.”

That is to say, Microsoft or Google may agree to censor this or filter that, but in the end, censorship is no match for human ingenuity and the endless ways for the Internet to provide workarounds. “You may be able to take a very visible Web site and say that something shouldn’t be there,” Mr. Gates said, “but if there is a desire by the population to know something, it is going to get out.”

But even if that’s true, Western technology companies have only themselves to blame if users in the free world quickly ask when Shi Tao, the journalist whose name Yahoo gave to Chinese authorities and who subsequently was sentenced to a 10-year prison term, will be released. Or that people use what-ifs to ponder the moral limits of saying that local law is local law.

That’s partly because it is only recently that any of the players have made any genuine efforts at transparency in their dealings with China.

Two weeks ago, Google took the bold step of plainly admitting that it was entering the Chinese market with a censored search product, tweaked according to government specifications. Then last week, Microsoft announced new policies that would enable it to honor a government’s demand to shut down a citizen’s blog (as happened five weeks ago with a popular MSN blogger in Beijing) while still keeping the blog visible outside of China.

But these are small victories, said Julien Pain of the group Reporters Without Borders, which tracks Internet censorship in China, not least because the companies “seem now to accept censorship as a given, and have simply decided to be transparent about it.”

Still, to many, it signaled progress.

And yet all four American companies with P.R. baggage in China — Cisco, Yahoo, Microsoft and now Google — were no-shows at a hearing last Wednesday of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. At least three of the companies submitted written statements defending their activities in China, but their absence only added to their image problem, as headlines like “Tech Firms Snub Feds” and “Google Stiffs Congressional Caucus” bounced around the blogosphere.

And thus, the months of what came off as appeasing Beijing and engaging in mealy-mouthed image management at home seem to have taken a toll — most recently, and perhaps most pointedly, on Google.

It is telling, to say the least, that the darling of so many technophiles — which promised to “do no evil” — is now on the receiving end of spontaneous boycotts, with disillusioned search-lovers looking for alternatives. These signs of lost innocence also show that the race for China may soon offer a selling point to companies that don’t cooperate with repressive regimes.

“Today, I know you don’t deserve me,” wrote one visitor to, a site where users can “break up” with Google and officially boycott the search giant on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14. “You betrayed my love and trust. I have been with you for so many years. Now, we are through! FOREVER. I am gonna hook up with IceRocket.”

IceRocket is one of several search alternatives listed at, which is run by a group called Students for a Free Tibet., a search site developed by several Carnegie Mellon computer scientists, is another. Clusty proudly states that it “never censors search results” or excludes material “that would be objectionable to governments or would be unlawful in unelected, nondemocratic regimes.”

In an e-mail message, Mark Cuban, IceRocket’s founder, put it more bluntly: “IceRocket doesn’t and won’t censor. We index more than one million Chinese-language blogs. No chance we censor or block anything in this lifetime.”

Even David Pinto, who owns the popular — and wholly apolitical — site, has ceased taking income from Google ads. “I was no longer comfortable taking money from them,” he said. That’s the sort of apple-pie protest that American companies can’t ignore.

On Feb. 15, the House subcommittee on Global Human Rights will hold hearings on the whole topic, and all four companies — Cisco, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft — are expected to attend, given that the committee, unlike the caucus, could muster subpoenas if it wanted. The companies will presumably explain that they can’t be dogmatic on censorship when doing business in China, and that if American Internet companies don’t do business in China, change will never come there.

These are hard arguments to dismiss, but so, too, are the what-ifs. One that ought to be on the mind of the companies as they come before Congress might be this: What if, years from now, the Great Firewall of China comes tumbling down and the full extent of your arrangements with the Chinese regime becomes known?

“One day, people in China may be able to see the records of conversations between multinational tech companies and the Chinese authorities,” wrote Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, in her blog at

“What were the exact terms of the deals? Who made them? In what context did these conversations take place?” Ms. MacKinnon wrote. “I expect the revelations won’t be too flattering for the companies concerned.”

The Discussion: 5 Comments

That is one hard-hitting article. Though some of the examples are ridiculous, none of those companies have told us where they will draw the line. So they release info on Chinese citizens. Will they release info on people like us if we have been participating in “criminal activities” or aiding them in China? Seriously.

Today China will tolerate foreign nationals (that aren’t ethnic Chinese) expressing views, etc so long as it’s not on the streets. But what about when China feels it can throw its weight around? Who’s not to say that someone might set off unrest in China from some sort of publication, denunciation on a blog or forum, etc?

It might sound ridiculous, especially as some people’s identities are out there because they don’t try to hide it. But for those of us that enjoy our anonymity, how do we know that our personal details won’t be handed over to the PSB? Even if we were simply monitored it would be an unacceptable infringement of our privacy.

Anyway, paranoia aside, google et al had better watch out for icerocket and the like. I gave it a try, and I couldn’t see the difference between that and google. So what is google going to offer me to stay with them? Some vague crap about helping Chinese people by being present in their market?

Try harder google………

And it is very true that these companies are potentially being short-sighted. The CCP will not last forever. When it falls and Chinese people realise the extent of the misery it caused, they will vent their anger in the worst possible way towards any “collaborators”, domestic or foreign – with their wallets. If google gets reliant on China, a democratic “revolution” could deal it a death-blow.

On a side note, I’ll have to keep my eyes and ears open next week for news of what happens with that committee of the House. I hope they don’t quibble with any diplomatic niceties and shame the companies to the extent that the representatives will be holding files over their faces when they exit the building.

February 6, 2006 @ 12:12 pm | Comment

The examples were intentionally ridiculous to underscore the point – that these companies seem willing to do anything to tap into the Chinese market, up to and including selling their souls.

February 6, 2006 @ 12:37 pm | Comment

Some TV programme needs to get some sort of scam going. Pretend that Chinese “officials” were going to meet them in a neutral location somewhere overseas to discuss extra business and then see what they could get them to agree to. Like turn over details of foreign nationals, whatever.

February 6, 2006 @ 1:34 pm | Comment

Richard, have you noticed the statement at Wampum dealing with Inktomi {Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft search} due to their handing data over to the US governement?

February 6, 2006 @ 3:38 pm | Comment

Idiotic rants by some self-righteous Americans — that’s what all this uproar over Google is about.

Why doesn’t the US Congress pass a law to force Google and others to withdraw from China, on “ethical” grounds?

It’s not like there are no search engines in China already. Net search won’t die in China without American participation. At this point I would rather companies like Yahoo and Google to cease and desist doing business in China altogether. No more “ethical” issues.

What’s more, years later Americans will get to bitch about all the missed business opportunities. Win-win situation, eh?

February 12, 2006 @ 6:38 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.