Suppose that Anne Frank had maintained an e-mail account while in hiding in 1944, and that the Nazis had asked Yahoo for cooperation in tracking her down. It seems, based on Yahoo's behavior in China, that it might have complied.
Granted, China is not remotely Nazi Germany. But when members of Congress pilloried executives of Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco Systems at a hearing about their China operations on Wednesday, there were three important people who couldn't attend. They were Shi Tao, Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun, three Chinese cyberdissidents whom Yahoo helped send to prison for terms of 10 years, eight years and four years, respectively.
Only Shi, a Chinese journalist, has gotten much attention. But Chinese court documents in each case say that Yahoo handed over information that was used to help convict them.
It's no wonder that there's an Internet campaign to boycott Yahoo, at www.booyahoo.blogspot.com. But it's a mistake to think of all the American companies as equal sinners, for Google appears to have done nothing wrong at all. Here's my take on the four companies:
Yahoo sold its soul and is a national disgrace. It is still dissembling, and nobody should touch Yahoo until it provides financially for the families of the three men it helped lock up and establishes annual fellowships in their names to bring Web journalists to America on study programs.
Microsoft has also been cowardly, but nothing like Yahoo. Microsoft responded to a Chinese request by recently shutting down the outspoken blog of Michael Anti (who now works for the New York Times Beijing bureau). Microsoft also censors sensitive words in the Chinese version of its blog-hosting software; the blogger Rebecca MacKinnon found that it rejected as "prohibited language" the title "I Love Freedom of Speech, Human Rights and Democracy."
Cisco sells equipment to China that is used to maintain censorship controls, but, as far as I can tell, similar equipment is widely available. Cisco also enthusiastically peddles its equipment to the Chinese police. In short, Cisco in China is a bit sleazy but nothing like Yahoo.
Google strikes me as innocent of wrongdoing. True, Google has offered a censored version of its Chinese search engine, which will turn out the kind of results that the Communist Party would like (and thus will not be slowed down by filters and other impediments that now make it unattractive to Chinese users). But Google also kept its unexpurgated (and thus frustratingly slow) Chinese-language search engine available, so in effect its decision gave Chinese Web users more choices rather than fewer.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who called the hearing and drew the Anne Frank analogy, has introduced a bill to regulate Internet companies abroad, but that's an overreaction. For, as Anti noted in his own critique, the legislation would just push out foreign companies and leave Chinese with rigidly censored search engines like Baidu.
That said, American companies shouldn't be abjectly surrendering. Microsoft could publish a list of the political terms that it blocks as "prohibited language." Google could post a list of all the Web sites it blocks. They can push back.
In any case, the tech companies are right about a fundamental truth: The Internet is a force for change in China. There are already 110-million Internet users in China, and 13-million bloggers - hugely outnumbering the 30,000-odd censors.
China's security forces try to filter out criticisms, but they often fail. A study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School found that China managed to block 90 percent of Web sites about the "Tiananmen massacre," 31 percent of sites about independence movements in Tibet, and 82 percent of sites with a derogatory version of the name of former President Jiang Zemin. In other words, some is stopped, but a lot gets through.
So think of the Internet as a Trojan horse that will change China. Yahoo has acted disgracefully, but the bigger picture is that the Internet is taking pluralism to China - and profound change may come sooner rather than later.
It's the blogs that are closed that get attention and the cyberdissidents who are arrested who get headlines, just as in America it's the planes that crash that make the evening news. But millions of Chinese blogs and podcasts are taking off, and they are inflicting on the Communist Party the ancient punishment of "ling chi," usually translated as "death by a thousand cuts."
New York Times News Service