Digital Privacy

Freedom of Expression – China’s Internet

The House of Commons’ Select Committee on Foreign Affairs have published a report on East Asia that strongly critisices internet corporations working for the Chinese government to filter, censor and control web content. Back in February, American politicians did not pull any punches when they condemned Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco for “decapitating the voice of the dissidents” as part of a “sickening collaboration” with the Chinese government. Despite the British flair for understatement an equally gutsy sentiment is expressed by Parliament’s report.

We conclude that the collaboration of Western internet companies in the censorship and policing of the internet for political purposes is morally unacceptable. We further conclude, however, that it is in the interests of Chinese internet users that as much information be available for browsing as possible. We recommend that the Government put pressure on the Chinese government to relax its censorship of the internet and its requirement for foreign companies to restrict the political content of their pages. We further recommend that the Government represent to the Chinese authorities the damage which is done to economic growth by continued restriction of the free flow of information. If you want to read more detail on this issue we highly recommend Amnesty International’s Undermining freedom of expression in China.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report on East Asia (Paragraph 343)

Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google are each singled out for criticism in the report. Although they have defended themselves by claiming China’s laws force them to censor internet material, it is significant that none of the companies has been willing or able to precisely specify which laws or legal processes oblige this censorship.

In a new development, and to the dismay of human rights organisations, several Western internet companies have recently adapted their products in order to gain access to the Chinese market, by developing technology which censors their web-browsers in accordance with government diktat. Particular criticism has been aimed at Microsoft, which last year launched a portal in China that blocks use of words such as ‘freedom’ in the text of weblogs (‘blogs’); Yahoo!, for identifying journalist Shi Tao at the request of the Chinese authorities, leading to his arrest and sentencing for posting on the internet an internal Communist Party minute; and Google, for launching a self-censoring version of its website in China. Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft submitted evidence to our inquiry. The argument they put forward, in various ways, was that the choice faced by foreign companies in China was either to comply with domestic legislation, or to leave the country, and that remaining in the country has the beneficial effect of offering Chinese internet users increased access to information and internet services. However, in June, Sergey Brin, one of Google’s founders, admitted that Google’s actions had compromised its principles.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report on East Asia (Paragraph 341)

This report is not, however, all doom and gloom. The undercurrent of optimism felt by many Chinese, in terms of long term reform, is picked up by the committee. It is hoped that economic imperatives are likely to lead to broader liberalisation in the long run. Lord Powell is quoted as saying, “can you ever have a properly functioning, really successful economy without much greater freedom than exists in China today? My answer is: no, you cannot.” Amnesty, on the other hand, is less optimistic that simply engaging with China will nudge the state toward democracy and away from human rights violations. The short history of the internet in China has been one of rapid growth, but more particularly of increasing sophistication in censorship and control, facilitated and driven by American companies.