“It’s not my job to really understand what they’re going to use it for.”- an HP executive.
By Fatima Tuz Zahra
I knew about the Internet censorship in China but did not quite know the breadth and depth of the issue until my Chinese friends at Penn told me that Facebook, You tube, Twitter are banned in China. I dedicate this week’s entry on the Internet censorship in China and the role of Western corporations to my Chinese friends.
York questions the business ethics of Western tech companies in China
The article by Jillian C. York in Aljazeera points out that China’s extreme Internet censorship repressing its citizens and small political groups is possible because of the creation of the “Great Firewall in China.” The surveillance tools that have gone into making the Great Firewall have actually been built by American tech corporations. Though multi-stakeholder schemes such as Global Network Initiative and Global Business Initiative for Human Rights uphold the established codes of behavior for the corporations like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, HP and others they do not stop Microsoft Bing and Google search engine from censoring the Internet search results, and HP from being the biggest surveillance tool provider in China.
Furthermore, the 2011 revised version of the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA)– originally formulated in 2006 to uphold the rights of net users – did not name China, Cuba and Tunisia as “internet restricting countries”. The fear is they will also avoid commenting on the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, US allies that heavily control the Internet accessibility. Citing analyst Rebecca MacKinnon, the article says the GOFA bill was an “instrument” that “divides the world into ‘good’ countries versus ‘bad’ countries” and suitably legislates corporate activities as an extension of US government foreign policy.
Google’s relationship with Beijing: A case of North-South Co-operation?
Internet censorship in China is not new but the censorship machine became “ever more efficiently in mid 2008”. However, though individual corporations have had abrasive relationships with the Chinese government in the past, they have generally complied with their strict domestic-censorship policies even if they were in contradiction to what it espoused in the West.
The case in point is the Google-China case. In 2011 New York Times reported that Google had grown increasingly dissatisfied about censoring content for their Chinese users. They “accused the Chinese government of disrupting its Gmail service in the country” and threatened to stop all operations in the country. However later Google allowed the Chinese Government to renew their license to their website in Mainland China. Since then the company has continued its operations in China (home to the biggest market of Internet users), while still “uncomfortable… in censoring its search results on Beijing’s behalf.”
In this context, Jillian C. York’s accusation that Western tech corporations, such as Google, were not following the universal codes for corporate operations regarding censorship seems logical. However, the Western mainstream media continues to portray Internet censorship as the consequences of the result of the Chinese government’s policies. By doing so they discount the international corporation’s complicity and aiding of it.
Additionally, though certainly abated by the levels of government censorship of the Internet, use of Internet space by the Chinese suggest that public opinion in China is more anti-American than anti-Chinese. More recently on Feb. 20, 2012, BBC reported that the Chinese ‘netizens’ flooded President Obama’s Google+ page “in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Occupy Wall Street campaign”. The White House has not remarked on the Chinese occupation of Obama’s Google+ page. However, the general reaction has been: “If China ever abandoned its internet restrictions, the United States would have to protect its social media with a Great Firewall of its own.”
Therefore co-operations by the US firms in maintaining the Great Firewall definitely would function as a part of maintaining the security of the North as much as it is about profit. The case of Google’s relationship with Beijing, if looked at as a case of North-South co-operation, certainly does raise interesting questions about profit and state policies in both zones.
Moral education, Censorship and educators in China
The Chinese government has permanently banned social media like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, instant-message groups, even cellphone text messages in addition to restricting some entertainment programs on Television and Internet. The ban specially is on those programs that are based on Western concepts of culture. The rationale upheld for all these cases of censorship is to save the young generation from Western cultural invasion in the form of “trashy television, scandal-prone Hollywood stars, and drug addicted pop stars.”
The World Bank has given China a lower ranking in the business world for its restrictive policy. But undeterred the Chinese government has continued to pay millions to Microsoft, HP, Yahoo, Google and many more Western companies to sustain it. Considering the costs they are paying one might actually wonder if the moral education of youth in such draconian fashions is really worth it!
The Chinese teachers at times bypass the censorship system to give their students access to useful content. They often do so by using proxy servers or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) like most others. However, they are also not exempted from punishment for breaking the censorship rules, and there were instances when Chinese educators had to go to jail.
An online support group for Chinese educators report that censorship is a choice in China, and not totally obligatory. The reason is that most of the websites published in English by other countries are accessible from China, so anyone with some knowledge of English can read the content of those websites. Teachers can do so too, however, the risks of being punished for not abiding by the censorship rule and going to jail remain!
Clearly, the teachers who disobey the censorship law has reasons to do so. The avenues free Internet usage open up for education and capacity building are too numerous for any government to deny. Therefore I think at this point China must ask whether or not the youth are really benefitting from the censorship arrangement or are the Western Corporations benefitting at the cost of the Chinese people? Please share your ideas and thoughts on this matter.
P.S: For more on censorship please refer to Maria’s post on Cuba’s Internet censorship, and a generation that has never spoken!
Should tech companies do business in China? In Aljazeera on Sept. 22, 2011 http://goo.gl/k0NFG
Chinese “netizens” inundate Obama’s Google+ page. In BBC News China on Feb. 25, 2012: http://goo.gl/hwMjA
Where the US and China can agree to agree. In Aljazeera on 14 Feb., 2012: http://goo.gl/YFrr3
Internet Censorship in China. In the New York Times on March 22, 2010: http://goo.gl/7Dhe9
H.R. 275. A Bill: To promote freedom of expression in Internet. Published in Jan. 5, 2007: http://goo.gl/WMg5N
Government Internet Surveillance Starts with Eyes built in the West. In Electronic Frontier Foundation on Sept. 2, 2011: http://goo.gl/rDYQt
Falun Gong. In the New York Time on April 28, 2009: http://goo.gl/cYGs8
Google Accuses Chinese of Blocking Gmail Service. In the New York Times on March 20, 2011: http://goo.gl/Q4gFf
Google Inc. Updated in the New York Times on Feb. 28, 2012: http://goo.gl/D8PLD
Economy Rankings. In Doing Business, 2011: http://goo.gl/DRRPb
Qatar. In OpenNet Initiative: http://goo.gl/zYTll
Saudi Arabia: In OpenNet Initiative: http://goo.gl/EYzzj
The Internet Freedom Fallacy and the Arab Digital Activism. In Nawaat on Sept. 17, 2010: http://goo.gl/IGHDf
Race to the Bottom: Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship in Human Rights Watch, UN Refugee Agency on August 10, 2006: http://goo.gl/Xj6Ls
Why English should be the greatest weapon against censorship in China? In The China Teaching Web on January 25, 2010: http://goo.gl/DMxfA