China, the Web's Broken Link

The highlight of WWW2006 today was Danny Weitzner's talk entitled "China: a Broken Link on the Web." (See my notes or his slides.

The highlight of WWW2006 today was Danny Weitzner's talk entitled "China: a Broken Link on the Web." (See my notes or his slides.) He started with the controversial observation that we like to say that on the Web everyone's a publisher, but it may also be true that every government is a filter and interceptor.

Noting the story of Yahoo! helping to jail a Chinese writer by cooperating with the Chinese government, Weitzner noted that Yahoo! chooses between obeying Chinese law (which they do everywhere else as well) or simply not doing business there. The role of provocateur, as Yahoo! claims, is better left to the governments of the US and European countries.

There are three strategies that we can take with respect to China's behavior on the Internet. The first is what I have labeled the "do nothing and hope things work out strategy." You may not think of this as a strategy, but it makes the point of respecting China's sovereignty, something we want other's to do for us.

Danny Weitzner, W3C, at WWW2006

Danny Weitzner, W3C, at WWW2006

The second strategy is what I'm calling the "hard line" strategy. This perhaps best characterized by the Reporters Without Borders principles. If you read them, these essentially say that companies shouldn't do business in ways that might compromise human rights.

Weitzner put forth a third strategy which is the "transparency" strategy. This is perhaps best characterized by Google's transparency principles which allow cooperation while also don't forgo working in countries like China, but say that what happens should be made public. This would force China to at least live up to their policies on the world stage. One problem: China makes transparency against the law as well giving companies practicing this strategy a fine line to tread. Other groups take this task on--publishing lists of what's been blocked.

I got the impression that Weitzner is an optimist, believing that domestic demands will eventually result in political reform. If that's true, then transparency is likely to put additional pressure in the right spots and help drive change.