All over the world, Internet users entertain romantic delusions about cyberspace. To most of us Web surfers, the Internet provides a false sense of complete freedom, power and anonymity.
Every once in a while, of course, unsolicited messages and ads that happen to be mysteriously related to our most intimate habits intrude. They remind us that we Internet users are, indeed, under constant virtual surveillance. When the watchers have only commercial motives, such “spam” feels like a minor violation. However, in China or Russia, the Internet is patrolled not by unsolicited peddlers, but by the police.
So Russian human-rights activists and the environmental organization Baikal Environmental Wave should not have been surprised when, earlier this month, flesh and blood policemen — not Internet bots — confiscated their computers and the files stored within them. In the time of the Soviet Union, the KGB would have indicted these anti-Putin dissidents for mental disorders. This supposedly being a “new Russia,” cyber-dissidents are accused of violating intellectual property rights.
You see, they were using Microsoft-equipped computers and could not prove that the software had not been pirated. By confiscating the computers, the Russian police could supposedly verify whether or not the Microsoft software that the activists were using had been installed legally.
On the surface, Microsoft and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s police look like strange bedfellows. But are they? Microsoft’s authorized representatives declared that they could not oppose the Russian police actions, because the Seattle-based company had to abide by Russian law. Such an ambiguous declaration can be interpreted either as active support for the Russian police or as passive collaboration. Moreover, in previous cases, Microsoft assisted the Russian police in their investigations of non-governmental organizations.
Clearly, human-right activists in Russia cannot and should not count on Microsoft as an ally in their efforts to build a more open society. However, Microsoft’s ambiguous — at best — behavior is part of a pattern. Indeed, the record of Internet companies in authoritarian countries is both consistent and grim.
Yahoo set the pace in pioneering the active collaboration of Internet and high-tech firms with political repression. In 2005, Yahoo gave the Chinese police the computer identification code for a dissident journalist, Shi Tao (師濤). Shi had sent a message in praise of democracy, which the censors had detected. Following Yahoo’s lead, the police arrested him. Shi remains in jail to this day.
At that time, Yahoo’s managers in the US, like Microsoft in Russia, declared that they had to follow Chinese law. Shi, in his jail cell, was undoubtedly pleased to learn that China is ruled by law, not by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After all, the rule of law is what Shi is fighting for.
Google, at least for a short while, seemed to follow different guidelines in its Chinese business, appearing to adhere to its widely proclaimed ethical principle, “Don’t be evil.” To protest against censorship, the Silicon Valley-based company relocated from China to still relatively free Hong Kong. On the Hong Kong-based search engine, Chinese Netizens could read about Taiwan, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 or the Dalai Lama. On Google.cn, these sources, along with the results of searches using many other forbidden terms, simply did not appear.