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U.S. Business Could Help Undercut China's Internet Controls

September 15, 1996|Michael Clough | Michael Clough is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a research associate at the Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

BERKELEY — The government of China has begun to make good on its threats to limit the ability of its citizens to access the Internet. Chinese web surfers are unable to connect with some 100 sites, including those of major Western newspapers, human-rights organizations, Chinese and Tibetan activists and Playboy. Paradoxically, news of Beijing's censorship moves broke just as software giant Microsoft, in an effort to get a leg up in its global web-browser war with Netscape, launched a Chinese version of its Explorer 3.0 web browser.

The timing of these events highlights a dilemma that may soon face U.S. computer, software and communications firms: There are huge profits to be made by setting up shop along the Chinese information highway, but the cost of doing business there may include assisting China in bolstering its cyber-highway patrol. As a result, companies may run the risk of being sucked into China's political battles at home and abroad.

It's not yet clear how serious this dilemma will become. So far, news of the Chinese crackdown has drawn relatively little protest. One reason is that many Internet users believe that Beijing's censorship controls will snap. For example, one participant in an Internet newsgroup on China dismissed the controls as "trivial," even offering to help anyone wishing to circumvent them.

But activists and human-rights groups, among others, do not dismiss the threat so lightly. Moreover, even if, over the long run, Chinese attempts to control access to the worldwide web fail, there is still a danger that U.S. businesses will get caught in the political firestorms that could develop in the short run. At present, companies such as Microsoft and Netscape do not appear to view the censorship peril in China as a serious problem. By and large, they see it as part of the broader debate over Internet censorship, which, in the United States and Europe, mainly focuses on pornography and use of the Internet to facilitate criminal activities.

The issue in China, however, is different in several fundamental ways. First and most important, in the debate over pornography and criminal activity, the problem facing Internet providers has been how to find ways to persuade governments that abuses can be prevented short of legal censorship. With a few exceptions, neither Internet companies nor freedom-of-information advocates have argued that children should have unfettered access to pornography or that terrorists should be free to use the web to plan bombings.

In contrast, U.S. companies doing business in China will find it difficult, politically if not morally, to go along with Beijing's judgment on what kinds of information should be suppressed. For example, Microsoft would certainly find it awkward to endorse Chinese controls that limit access to its own electronic magazine, Slate.

Ironically, the technologies that have helped the Internet industry make the case against legal censorship in the United States and other Western countries actually make it more difficult for them to avoid getting caught in the middle of the battle over political censorship in China. Software programs such as NetNanny, SafeSurf and Cybersitter allow parents a means to control their children's access to the Internet, and the PICS protocol establishes conventions for describing and labeling web sites based on such criteria as sexual content, thus making it easier to differentiate among sites according to varying definitions of offensiveness.

These are precisely the kinds of software and protocols that China would want to perfect so it could readily block what government officials regard as "spiritual pollution." It is not difficult to imagine Beijing hiring U.S. companies to help it design such programs. Short of that, it may require that such programs be bundled with all Internet browsers distributed in China, thus possibly putting Microsoft or Netscape in the unenviable position of choosing between abandoning the Chinese market or becoming a partner in the suppression of dissent.

The problems facing U.S. companies would be more serious if China were to pressure them to develop means to help Chinese officials track down and prosecute "political criminals" on the web. One way of illustrating this is to imagine the political fallout if, during the apartheid era, a U.S. company had provided assistance to the South African government that led to the arrest of Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Although most U.S. Internet companies don't seem to take these kinds of political risks seriously, some human-rights groups are already beginning to think about the possibility of targeting those that collaborate with Beijing. Given the incredible range of activist groups concentrating on China, it is just a matter of time before some of them launch campaigns against Internet companies analogous to those that targeted U.S. corporate involvement in South Africa.

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