Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have been acting like grownups recently in their decision to cooperate with the Chinese government in censoring Internet comment. You may not agree with their course of action -- you may even condemn what they're doing -- but you have to admit that they've taken responsibility for their actions and decisions, and not tried to claim that the whole thing is beyond their control.
I wish I could say the three companies' critics are also being grownups. It's easy to be outraged by companies that cooperate with oppressive regimes, easy to post angry blog entries and issue impassioned press releases. But it's harder to work for change.In the latest developments, as reported in our story by Tom Claburn, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo tried to enlist the U.S. government to work to stop censorship in other countries, such as China. "As a U.S.-based company that deals primarily in information, we have urged the United States government to treat censorship as a barrier to trade," said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel, in a statement prepared for a meeting held Wednesday by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.
Google was condemned after it launched a Chinese Web presence that censors content deemed unfit by the Chinese government. Last month, Microsoft blocked access to the site of a Chinese blogger, Michael Anti. And Yahoo came under fire in September, following revelations that it supplied information to the Chinese authorities that led to ten-year prison sentence for Chinese journalist Shi Tao.
This week, Google and Microsoft took steps to take responsibility for their actions, and discuss the issue with Internet users.
Microsoft outlined its procedure for taking down blogs. Microsoft will cooperate with censorship only if faced with a legitimate order from a foreign government. That may not sound like much--but still, it's progress.
Likewise, Google explained, in frank and plain language, why it took the action it did, and what it proposes to do to improve the human rights situation in China.
Since the Google story broke recently, I've found myself reaching for the keyboard, ready to write a blistering diatribe denouncing Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo as a bunch of evil greedheads, ready to throw aside principle in the name of profit. It'd be an easy editorial to write, and a popular opinion to have.
But the situation is complex. Google explained that they cooperated with China because they believe the business benefits of Internet access, and the information that will be brought to Chinese people over the Internet, outweigh the harm done by cooperating with censorship.
What Google didn't say is that censoring the Internet is hard to do. It may prove to be impossible. By helping bring the Internet to China, Google might well be helping the Chinese people overthrow the regime of the censors--and enlisting the censors' unwitting help in doing it. Google didn't say that, but some of the people at Google must have believed it; the Internet's inherent resistance to censorship is a commonly held belief among Internet enthusiasts--like, for example, Bill Gates.
While I'm willing to see Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo's side of this issue, and I'm willing to withhold my condemnation, and I'm even willing to applaud them for taking responsibility for their actions, I'm not prepared to go the extra step and condone those actions. It's distressing, to say the least, to think of of U.S. companies cooperating with totalitarian governments in the oppression of their own people.
But, while I'm uncomfortable with Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, I'm not really thrilled with Congressman Tom Lantos and attorney Andrew Serwin, either.
Lantos, o-chair of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, had a perfectly lovely condemnation of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo at the ready. "The launch last week of the censored Chinese Google website is only the latest sign that even companies that make strong and impressive corporate claims, such as Google's motto, 'Don't Be Evil,' cannot or do not want to respect human rights when business interests are at stake," he said in a statement. Do take the time to read the statement; it's very plain and eloquent.
But, reading further into the statement, we find that Lantos is okay with some censorship. For example, he notes that, in Germany neo-Nazi sites are banned. Lantos (a Holocaust survivor and immigrant who, as a teen, fought in the underground against Nazis) condemns speech by neo-Nazis and terrorists, and carefully separates that kind of speech from pro-democracy advocates.
But what Lantos doesn't get is that neither he, nor the governments of China or Germany, should be allowed to decide what speech is allowed and what is forbidden.
Censorship is wrong. Democracy advocates should be allowed to speak in China, and, sadly, Holocaust-deniers and neo-Nazis also have a right to speak. The right of free speech is absolute, it belongs to everyone. The antidote to bad speech isn't censorship; it's good speech.
Moreover, Lantos is big on talk, but not ready to act. When asked by Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft to intervene on their behalf, Lantos's spokesman declined, saying that Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are big enough to act on their own.
That response completely flummoxed me. I mean, if the Congressional Human Rights Caucus isn't willing to intervene to champion human rights, what, precisely, is its purpose?
Likewise, Serwin thinks that asking companies to uphold basic human rights is darn unfair and downright mean. "It's probably no more proper for us in the U.S. to impose our views on the Chinese than it would be for them to impose their censorship on us," he says. In that statement, Serwin reduces free speech from the fundamental human right that it is, to a local custom, same as driving on the left side of the road or taking long naps in the afternoon.
I could go on like this, ranting and raving against Lantos and Serwin. But I won't. condemnation is cheap and easy. Action is hard.
What can we do -- heck, what can I do -- to help promote free speech and other basic human rights in areas, like China, where they're lacking? What Internet tools, such as anonymizers, are available, and how can we support them?