Thinking twice about doing business in China

Summary:As is the case in many governments with respect to their countries, the Chinese government sets the ground rules before foreign companies can do business in China.  The choice between going along with those rules or losing access to one of the fastest growing markets in the world has largely been a behind-closed-doors decision that involved no government intervention.

As is the case in many governments with respect to their countries, the Chinese government sets the ground rules before foreign companies can do business in China.  The choice between going along with those rules or losing access to one of the fastest growing markets in the world has largely been a behind-closed-doors decision that involved no government intervention.  Until now.  As Fortune reports, Congress is none-too-happy about the sacrifices that the tech sector (it's picking on Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Cisco) appears to be making in the name of profit.  Even worse, a bunch of human rights organizations are piling on:

U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and the founding chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, said the companies declined to attend a briefing, held Wednesday, to analyze the role of U.S. business in Chinese Internet censorship....Lantos said the U.S. firms have joined in "China's efforts to restrict the flow of information and to punish people who have the courage and determination" to fight for democracy and freedom....."They caved in to Beijing's demands for the sake of profits," Lantos said. "These massively successful high tech companies...should be ashamed."...Other members of Congress, along with advocates from human rights groups Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, also delivered scathing critiques of the tech firms.

There's a difficult moral question that has probably been best framed by Google on this matter.  The Internet has clearly turned into a channel for free speech and information access.  The fact that American firms (firms rooted in democratic values) are helping to facilitate that for Chinese citizens is a foot in the door and an important one at that when it comes to opening up Chinese society to the democratic values espoused here in the US and elsewhere. 

One critical aspect of the type of censorship that's at issue here is that it attempts to cover, as best as the Chinese government can manage, the publication of and access to ideas that it believes its citizens shouldn't be publishing or accessing.  The Chinese government may have more luck on the publishing side.  But in terms of filtering out democratically themed content that its citizens might access, censoring is not a scalable solution.  One need look no further than the success (actually, the lack thereof) that the world has had on the spam, phishing, spyware, virus and worm fronts. Not only are these are still massive problems that have been and will continue to be difficult to get a handle on, they also demonstrate the multiple paths through which content enters and exits a computer.  It's simply unfeasible for a single government to keep watch over and make a rule for every bit and byte that goes in and out of every citizen's Internet-enabled devices (including handsets).

In other words, regardless of what the Chinese government does (technologically, via laws, etc.), when search companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google are helping the Chinese people gain access to the world, those people are going to end up with better access to democratically themed content than not.  If you ask me, that's a foot that we'd rather have in the door, than not.   Now, some ZDNet readers have suggested that this is sort of like saying that it would have been better to provide the Jews with train transportation to Auschwitz than to make them walk. I understand the point, but I don't see it that way (and as I've written before, members of my family were shot to death in a Jewish ghetto in the Ukraine).  Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Cisco are not carting  thousands of people off to their death and I could be wrong, but I'm 99.99 percent certain that the Chinese people would rather have censored access to those technologies than none at all.  That's because they represent hope.

Topics: Government

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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