• United States

The Great Firewall of China

Feb 27, 20064 mins

As China grows increasingly important in the world economy, American companies are feeling the political pressure to “act responsibly” as they do business inside Chinese borders. The United States and China have vastly different views on human rights, democracy, individual privacy and political freedom. Now American high-tech companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft, Cisco and Google are caught in the middle of this battle of political wills.

No market is more attractive right now than China, with its population of more than 1 billion. Conservative estimates put the current market of individual computer users at 110 million and growing. No wonder tech companies are anxious to take root in China.

The hallmark of the Digital Age is that more people have easy access to more information than ever before. Americans think that’s good, as we believe information helps people think and act for themselves. The Chinese government, on the other hand, prefers that its populace have a more controlled (read: censored) access to information and expression.

Here’s where Google ends up between a rock and a hard place. To operate in China, Google had to agree to filter certain content the Chinese government finds objectionable. The resulting service, called, is a sanitized version of the search engine. Google is not happy about the restrictions, but the company says they are necessary to conduct business in China. Call it the Great Firewall of China.

The repercussions were swift and loud. Google has been called anti-democratic, evil, shameful and greedy. Human rights activists and members of Congress blasted the companies for giving in to a repressive government.

Yahoo also made headlines recently when it acknowledged revealing the name of a Chinese citizen who used the Internet to express his political views. Microsoft found itself in trouble over hosting and then abruptly disconnecting a popular blog by New York Times research assistant Zhao Jing. Further, Microsoft launched an MSN portal that blocks the use of the words “freedom” and “democracy.” Cisco is accused of supplying the Chinese government with switching equipment that helps to monitor and filter Web traffic. Cisco said it did nothing specific to help the government take such actions.

Executives from these companies have been requested to appear before the U.S. Congress to discuss how their business decisions may or may not support human rights violations. The companies say they don’t like being censored but must observe the laws of foreign countries if they want to do business in them.

As a knee-jerk response to the situation, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) is drafting a bill that would prevent American Internet companies from putting servers in countries that the U.S. State Department deems repressive to human rights. The bill also would set export controls for Web-site filtering devices that can limit free speech.

Excuse me for saying this, Congressman Smith, but you’re being awfully shortsighted. Is there anyone out there who thinks we Americans are going to change the Chinese government’s stance by keeping computer servers out of China or making companies like Google and Microsoft drop their business there?

If our own government restricts companies from offering services in China because our government doesn’t like their government’s ideologies, who loses? Google and the other companies, for sure. The American economy, which is now so driven by the tech industry, is also on track to lose. The Chinese government will just find non-U.S. companies to provide Internet services.

China is an essential business market. It seems to me that the U.S. government should be looking for ways to help foster fair trade and good business practices so that our companies can compete fairly. As for the charges of human rights violations, let’s let the State Department work on those issues and leave the technology providers out of it.