Wed, Sep 21, 2005 - Page 9 News List

China is shaping the Internet, and not vice versa

The idea that the Internet would help bring democracy to China seems to have been long forgotten; instead, China seems to be doing a good jog of keeping change at bay


In April 2004, a few weeks before the 15th anniversary of Beijing's massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square, the top-ranking staff members of The Contemporary Business News in Hunan were called into a meeting. An editor read a message from the Communist Party's propaganda department warning that protests or media coverage of the anniversary would not be tolerated as June 4 approached. Though the message was routine, the reporters were warned not to take notes.

But Shi Tao (師濤), one of the journalists, did. He e-mailed them to a Chinese dissident in the US, who posted them on the Internet. A few months later, Shi was arrested. This April, he was given 10 years in prison, a sentence the judge called lenient, for disseminating state secrets abroad.

How did the police find Shi? His newly published verdict states that the prosecution relied in part on information given to the government by Shi's e-mail provider, Yahoo.

The US has a bipartisan human rights policy in China. It is called trade. The idea is that Western companies will bring Western values -- especially when they develop the Internet, supposedly an unstoppable force for openness. But Shi's fate is the latest piece of evidence that it's not working out that way.

China now has more than 100 million Internet users, more than any nation but the US. But as the Internet booms, China is growing more politically closed. Its government has used the Internet masterfully as a steam valve, allowing Chinese to participate in a world that is modern in all senses but one.

A controlled Internet may seem like an oxymoron, but China has one. Sophisticated filters block access for users in China to ideas about democracy, human rights, Taiwan, Tiananmen and other sensitive subjects. Type in "democracy" on a search engine in China and you get a limited choice of government-approved sites, or nothing at all, or a warning that the word is prohibited. If you use one of these words in an e-mail message, chat room or blog, you will be censored, and possibly arrested.

US companies like Microsoft and Cisco have all sold China security tools and firewalls that China has turned into political controls. The companies argue that it is not their fault if China misuses standard politically neutral technology. They are right, but many foreign Internet companies in China have gone beyond neutrality. Some, including Yahoo, signed a pledge of "self-discipline" in 2002, promising to follow China's censorship laws. Many Internet portals actively censor their Chinese Web sites.

Snitching on a client to totalitarian police is still another category of bad behavior, a move that should shrivel the keyboard fingers of Yahoo users everywhere. Since Chinese legal verdicts so rarely come to light, it is unclear how commonly this occurs. It has always been easy to imagine China's government asking Internet companies for the e-mail of, say, a foreign businessman competing against a Chinese business or government entity. Now it is easy to imagine Yahoo complying.

The company admits it linked the e-mail to Shi's telephone for the police. Its only comment has been a brief declaration that its local subsidiaries must obey local laws, regulations and customs. But according to the verdict, the Yahoo subsidiary that turned in Shi is in Hong Kong. It has no more obligation to obey China's security laws than does Yahoo in Sunnyvale, California.

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