Chinese officials recently announced they will no longer consider death tolls and other relevant information about natural disasters to be state secrets. On the same day, China Telecom blocked Internet phone service from Skype. That left observers wondering whether freedom is growing or decreasing in China, a tough issue for American firms.
Some might argue that blocking access to cheaper and more secure telephone systems like Skype was an economic rather than a political move by China Telecom. But no one can deny that China, still a one-party Marxist-Leninist dictatorship, remains obsessed with information control.
Not only has China made it mandatory for all bloggers to register with the government, they have also pressured American technology companies to help them with their dirty work. Perhaps the most egregious example occurred recently when Yahoo voluntarily gave information about one of their broadband users to the police, leading to the arrest of journalist Shi Tao for e-mailing comments made in a newspaper staff meeting to a democracy group in New York. To the horror of human rights groups, Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“It is one thing to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government’s abuses and it is quite another thing to collaborate,” said Reporters Without Borders in a statement denouncing Yahoo’s actions.
American technology firms are in the sticky situation of trying to balance the interests of their shareholders with the principles of freedom that are responsible for their success in the first place. Yahoo has been in this position before when French authorities objected to the inclusion of Nazi paraphernalia in their auctions. Now it seems that the company doesn’t want to fight anymore.
“Yahoo must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations, and customs of the country in which they are based,” said a Yahoo spokesperson. But that response may not be good enough for the American public, and given China’s potential economic power, it may not be the intelligent way to move forward. What is good for America is one thing, but it remains to be seen whether American tech firms are organized in a manner that promotes freedom.
Finding Its Place
“If Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo had all gotten together and said ‘no’ to the constraints, censorship, and privacy violations of China,” said tech entrepreneur Alex Jacobson, “then, they could have made a difference.” They could still make a difference.
China is still trying to find its place and what’s really needed is a type of American “TechNet” for international issues. When asked if that sort of body exists, a Google spokesperson said, “Not that I’m aware of.” What is important in this context is that the key American technology firms talk with one another and think carefully about international issues. This is hardly a trivial matter.
To obtain legitimate success, it’s important that American tech firms maintain a clear idea of their goals and don’t capitulate to special government interests. It’s time for American capitalists to “unite,” so to speak.
For too long, American companies have acquiesced to overseas dictators. Freedom, capitalism, and civil liberties should drive America’s stance, but the question remains whether America’s firms will act. Political freedom too often stands at odds with economic freedom. That is, the Chinese people might be getting closer to economic freedom, but political freedom is elusive and controversial. And American bystanders usually don’t want to rock the boat — but they should. It’s in their interests to do so.
If America is to maintain its place in the world, its high-tech leaders need to embrace freedom and capitalism. Those concepts not only define the underlying principles of a just world, but they also speak to what technology firms must do to survive on the world stage.
Economics matters a great deal, and American companies are often torn when they consider their actions in a foreign land. They need to understand that choosing the free path is always more conducive to productivity and act on that principle. They should reject collaboration with tyranny and instead establish the American “group-building” needed to bring China into the fold.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. She also serves on the Technology Advisory Board for the Acceleration Studies Foundation.