Rebecca MacKinnon, Dave Weinberger and Robert Scoble provide a great public service today. MacKinnon first and most importantly with her post on Michael Anti (Zhao Jing), and Weinberger and Scoble with their follow posts to bring the issue more public attention (I saw it first on Weinberger this morning, and then again on scoble through memeorandum, leading ultimately to MacKinnon). These posts are evidence of how blogs can actually be good and useful and important (I’ve been a skeptic in the past; posts about important issues, written with authority and passion, like these three cause me to revisit that skepticism).
We don’t know all of the specifics yet about this case, but I think the latter half of MacKinnon’s post about her tests of Chinese language blogging tools is as troubling as this specific report about Michael Anti’s blog. I wrote last fall about this issue more broadly, and have been surprised there was less reaction to Yahoo’s actions last fall (and other companies, like Cisco, I might add).
I have some limited personal experience and opinion to bring to the dialog. When I headed up Real’s international consumer business in 2002-04, I travelled often to China, and spent a lot of time talking with friends and colleagues there about the potential censorship of our services (it was clear the Chinese authorities would not let us bring in streams from CNN and BBC, for example).
Whenever I broached the censorship topic, my young Chinese friends would tease me about my paternalistic ways, and never hesitated to remind me about my own government’s alleged human rights abuses (our captives at Guantanamo Bay being exhibit A at the time). They would also tell me how it was easy to find Tianammen Square massacre video, or other anti-government video, on the Internet (none was so brazen as to actually show me), and not to worry so much about censorship. These were smart, thoughtful, independent, well-educated people, some of them “Sea Turtles” — American citizens either Chinese born or of Chinese descent, returning to China — who lived there full time and just didn’t seem as worried as I was about the issue.
In the end, I didn’t have to confront the ethical and moral issues personally — I was let off the hook. Real decided not to invest as much in our efforts there as I wanted at that time, and the things we looked at were in music and games. It would be easy for me now to claim I would have made the right decision; I personally felt the powerful lure of that market, and understand why western firms are so intent on getting a beachhead there.
But ultimately, I do believe there are universal principles and human rights at stake, and freedom of speech is without a doubt one of them. While I personally understand the lure of the Chinese market, and appreciate the advice from my friends there not to behave paternalistically towards them, it’s just wrong for us to use digital tools, technologies, and inventions we’ve created to help the Chinese government censor speech of individuals, especially political speech. We have export restrictions on many technologies, including most importantly armaments. Why not also make it illegal to export technologies that enable governments to censor the speech of their citizens?
I “get” that others will fill the void (perhaps Europeans, ever willing to court the Chinese, perhaps other Asian countries, perhaps even local Chinese companies). But isn’t this an issue where we should be on the side of the people (generally, as a people and government), and not on the side of shareholders of Cisco, MSFT, YHOO, and maybe GOOG?