Arguing about arguing about China

People are knocking Congress for calling search vendors to account for aiding Chinese censorship. Laws coming out of the hearings could be a disaster, but the conversation is essential.

Harry Tsao, co-founder of a comparison shopping Web site with operations in China, says in a ZD Net editorial. "It is hard to see anything constructive that will come out of these public discussions."

If companies do start spending time lobbying, rather than addressing the real issue, that eroding freedom of information across the Web, it will be a step backward. I think Tsao goes over the top comparingIf Silicon Valley doesn't embrace this debate, it will find itself on the receiving end of some well-intended but poorly conceived law. debates about the habits of American companies in totalitarian countries when he suggests that the outcome is comparable to trade barriers, because the issue is not limiting access to the U.S. economy, but the free flow of ideas.

Bill Gates chimes in during a Financial Times interview, saying that censorship is futile: "The internet overwhelmingly makes information available. It is not possible to block information, it is just not." Well, that's not exactly true—try messaging across proprietary instant messaging systems. The Chinese government only needs to make it very difficult to find censored information to limit discussion about those topics, just like a dominant computer operating system developer might say customers can download and use Netscape if they really want a choice.

John Carroll, a Microsoft employee and ZD Net blogger adds his flawed analogy to the U.S.-Cuban and U.S.-Iranian relationships:

America has a tendency to prefer isolating regimes with whom it doesn't agree.  Unfortunately, that policy is notable for its complete failure to change the behavior of the target regime.  We've isolated Castro's Cuba for 40 years.  We've isolated Iran for over 20 years.  Has that policy resulted in regime change, vibrant democracy and a people plugged-in to the global economy?

Sorry, John, but the issue is not isolation but a call for increased openness that would extend the spirit of the Internet where it has not yet reached. Heck, even Chinese politicians who are on the outs from power would like more openness, having openly criticized the censorship of information in China.

As Bill Gates explained in the FT interview, Microsoft already distrusts the Chinese market enough that it maintains no servers in the country. Yes, Microsoft cooperates with the Chinese government, but it lives according to rules that limit its exposure to Chinese control—give Chinese users the same choices. Ultimately, a successful policy will encourage openness, so that the location of a server has little to do with the data that will be stored on it. Talking about the policies of U.S. companies toward Chinese censorship is the opposite of Cuban isolationism, which I oppose, as well.

It appears, however, that Congress is ready to act without talking because of the uncooperative approach search vendors have taken, some having refused to attend prior caucuses with Congress and, as Ethan Zuckerman explains Cisco did today, refusing to answer questions in a straight-forward way. Cisco, sounding like a White House press secretary, said it could not "confirm or deny whether they do or don’t provide instruction, training and/or service which helps customers use the routers for censorship purposes, or whether they market their technology to Chinese corporate and government customers with this function as a selling point."

Berkman Center Fellow Rebecca McKinnon, who is reporting from the Congressional hearings today, conveys details of legislation that will be introduced tomorrow which will create an Office of Global Internet Freedom within, it appears, the State Department. The spirit of the law, that it should be the standard of U.S. companies to refuse to cooperate with censorship programs and to keep user information confidential, is admirable. I don't believe the legislation will achieve those results because it turns the focus of companies back to a bureaucracy in Washington.

In the end, the dialogue is incredibly important. Companies and technologists should not resist talking about freedom of information and thought. Technology is not neutral when it is used to distort the choices people have in how they will inform or entertain themselves. If Silicon Valley doesn't embrace this debate, it will find itself on the receiving end of some well-intended but poorly conceived law.