Do corporations have a duty not to be evil? The public rallies for divestment from Sudan were still fresh on one’s mind when the news headlines reported Google’s fall from grace. Though it once proudly espoused the motto, “Don’t be evil,” Google finally caved in to pressures from the Chinese government and launched a pro-censorship search engine in China. The modified program will return deceptive results for keywords like “freedom,” “democracy,” “Falun Gong” and “human rights.”
Is it really so hard not to be evil?
For any Internet user, this scandal hits close to home. It used to be that Web searches for summer opportunities in China, data on China’s rural economy, news about the avian flu in Beijing and historical photographs of the Tiananmen Square Massacre were only a few clicks away. But when one opens the Google page today, there is a subconscious uneasiness that the results may be filtered, or worse, intentionally misleading.
Google, and for that matter, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Cisco, claim that censorship is necessary for doing business with China. (Cisco, an American-based technology company, worked with the Chinese government to tailor a system of information censorship; the Yahoo! search engine and an MSN-sponsored blog service participated in similar acts of censorship.) But the real “China” is the Chinese user base of 111 million citizens who depend on the Internet — not the Chinese communist government — for their information. Thus, they betrayed not only U.S. taxpayers, but the millions of Chinese Internet users that they purported to serve.
When the companies of today’s multi-billion-dollar technology industry first began negotiations in China, they promised to advance democracy and the free flow of information. There was plenty of talk about how the Internet could fundamentally change the nation. But the reverse trend could be true now: The Chinese government may fundamentally change the Internet service provider industry more than the industry will change China.
In the greedy competition for a lion’s share of the China market, many ISPs sacrificed their corporate ethics and the interests of their Chinese consumers. Lost in the shuffle was the service providers’ original function: providing accurate and real-time information to all users. In the future, if Web searches become outsourced to China, there would be nothing to prevent the Beijing government from rewriting the very rules of Internet regulation.
In this light, perhaps it is unfair to lay the blame on the corporations alone. The real culprit is the Chinese Communist Party, which ultimately controls the flow of information in China and assiduously guards the portals of the Great Firewall of China. At least 30,000 Internet police are employed to monitor China’s chat rooms and message boards every day. However, at the same time, there are ongoing Internet-freedom initiatives to break through this information blockade. Already, the CCP’s information stronghold is showing cracks.
A good example is the popular online commentary, The Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party, that has rattled the nerves of Beijing leaders and emboldened human-rights defenders in China. According to limited estimates, tens of millions of copies of the Nine Commentaries have been sent to China by people via e-mail, chat room, text-messaging, message boards, instant messaging and other means. Volunteers in the United States have set up a “Quit the CCP” Web site for people in China to renounce their communist affiliations. As of today, more than 7.6 million Chinese have submitted their statements of renunciation on the Web site using dynamic-IP and anti-filtering Web technology. This Internet-led grass-roots movement forced Party leader Hu Jintao to launch a national campaign in 2005 to regain the loyalty of the CCP members. Of course, the Nine Commentaries also landed on top of Chinese government’s list of the most heavily censored Internet search terms, according to a study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.
The success of the Nine Commentaries Internet movement shows that there is a huge market in China for anti-censorship technology and services, just as there is a huge demand in the United States for anti-virus and anti-spyware programs. The enormous popularity of uncensored online news sources among Chinese Internet users indicates people’s growing appetite for freedom and information in the shadows of a totalitarian government.
If the Internet service providers want to invest in China’s future and truly serve its 111 million Internet users — who are demanding free and uncensored information — perhaps it’s time for them to change their corporate strategy.
Invest in today’s information, not the censorship of a bygone era. Don’t be evil.
Hao Wang is a junior in Morse College.