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China Road: Which is the right path?

January 25, 2010

Should they stay or should they go?
Anupam Chander
The San Francisco Chronicle
January 24, 2010

This month American Internet companies
encountered a fork in the electronic Silk Road
leading into China. Google declared that it was
ready to follow a path out of the country unless
it could offer an uncensored service there.
Microsoft took the other road, declaring that it
was committed to proceeding in China.

Both companies contend that theirs is the right
path for the people of China. Which is the high road?

What happens if Google takes the road out: If
Google retreats from China, that does not mean
that it will entirely abandon the Chinese people.
It can still offer Chinese language search - from
an offshore location. When Chinese users go to
Google.com, Google can automatically offer up its
service in Chinese. Of course, it might be
difficult for Google to find a neighboring
country willing to host content that the Chinese
government abhors. While many Asian states would
be eager to attract a significant Google
presence, they might fear risking relations with
their biggest trading partner and the local
superpower. Perhaps a logical choice would be
India, which has long snubbed China by hosting
the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetan exiles.

But offering its services from abroad presents
two major obstacles. First, there is the delay
inherent in routing information from far away.
Chinese users will face a lag as the information
they seek crosses numerous computers and
networks. Second, and far more threatening to
Google's aspirations, is the possibility that
China can simply block Google, either by stopping
it at the few points at which the Internet enters
China or by ordering local Internet Service
Providers to prevent anyone from accessing
Google. All this makes for, in Google's words, a "bad user experience."

If China stops its people from accessing Google,
it is the Chinese people who will suffer. While
local search engine Baidu might be a credible
alternative to search for information in China,
Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have become
librarians to the world's knowledge. The Chinese
government is investing heavily in research and
development and is building major universities.
It also hopes to build world-leading enterprises.
Yet, it can hardly hope to educate its people to
become world-class researchers and leaders if it
restricts access to the World Wide Web. One news
account last week quoted a young Chinese
engineering student worried about the loss of
Google Scholar, which she uses to find academic
papers in polymer science. (She also uses Google
to download "Desperate Housewives.")

What happens if Microsoft stays: Microsoft's Bing
search engine will gain new ground, and the
company will certainly profit. Chinese people
will be able to access much of the world's
information. Yet, the information Microsoft will
offer will remain compromised - not touching upon
political or spiritual topics that the Chinese
government disfavors. Far more worrisome is the
possibility that Chinese human rights activists
who use its service, assuming anonymity, may find
that Chinese authorities have somehow gained
access to their accounts - and their networks of
likeminded folks. This was the message in the
recent reports of hacking into the computer
systems of American companies doing business in China.

Unlike Microsoft, Yahoo last week declared that
it stood "aligned" with Google. Indeed, this last
year has shown the efforts of Silicon Valley to
stand with the people of foreign lands when they
seek to share the truth about the repression they
face. During the popular uprising in Iran after
the elections last summer, the Silicon Valley
enterprise Twitter rescheduled a system update to
occur at 1:30 a.m. Tehran time - even at the
price of some inconvenience to its American
users, who now faced a down system from 2 to 3 p.m. PST.

Twitter recognized that its Iranian users were
using it as a conduit to distribute information
about the protests and the repression and did not
want to interrupt that flow. During the same time
period, Google and Facebook quickly rolled out
services in Farsi to assist Iranians in accessing their distribution platforms.

While standing up to the Iranian government is
the right thing to do, there is less at economic
stake in Iran than in China. China now has the
world's largest population of Internet users.
Google hopes to sell phones running Android and
Lenovo laptops with its Chrome operating system there.

Microsoft, Yahoo and Google are members of the
Global Network Initiative, a nonprofit
organization that is designed to ensure that
Internet companies respect the human rights of their users.

Yet the Global Network Initiative could only
offer a bland admonishment for companies to "think through (their) choices."

The Initiative seemed to offer support for nearly
any decision a company might make, noting that
the information technology industry "is diverse,
and different companies may make different
decisions about entering or exiting a market
based on specific circumstances such as timing,
location, relationships and the nature of a
particular product, service or business."

Imagine if Western Internet companies had put on
a united front as they faced the "Great Firewall"
of China. If they all took the high road, perhaps
they might have scaled that wall. After all, the
Chinese government can ill afford to hobble
access to the global Internet if it hopes to take
its rightful place as a world leader in business and art.

Threat to the Internet

Can a government shut down the Internet?

After YouTube showed Buddhist monks demonstrating
against the Myanmar (formerly Burmese) government
in 2007, Myanmar shut down the Internet for the
whole country. The Chinese government seems to
have pulled the plug on the Internet in 2009 in
the wake of a disturbance in its remote, largely
Muslim province, Xinxiang. China said it was trying to stem ethnic violence.

Why is that important?

A government worried about the truth getting out
can stop citizens from talking with each other or with people around the world.

Can this happen everywhere?

No. Once the Internet becomes essential to a
nation's economy, the government cannot afford to
shut down the Internet entirely.

Will the revolution be twittered?

When governments bar reporters from covering
events, ordinary citizens can tell the world what
is happening through services such as Twitter.
Individuals can send messages using mobile phones
and also point users to videos they have uploaded to YouTube.

Why is that important?

Twitter allows the world to learn what's
happening even when the government does not want
anybody to know. But it is sometimes difficult to
sort fact from fiction. Trained reporters are
indispensable, but because they are sometimes
unavailable, ordinary citizens have to substitute.

Can this happen everywhere?

Yes. When Moldovan television broadcast dance
routines instead of reporting on protests, people
used Twitter to tell their fellow citizens what
was happening. But governments can try to target Twitter access.

- Anupam Chander, A professor of law at UC Davis
and a fellow at Yale's Information Society
Project, Anupam Chander is writing a book on "The
Electronic Silk Road." Send your feedback to us
through our online form at SFGate.com/chronicle/submissions/#1.
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