Spoutin' Off: Yahoo's crime of censorship
By Michael E. Rau
June 26 2006
So, I've been reading this report from my friends with "Reporters Without Borders" about the Internet censorship policies of American companies doing business in China, and really getting steamed.
Then a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives passes by a unanimous voice vote, a piece of proposed legislation that brought a little ray of sunshine into my day.
More on that in a minute. First let's talk about Yahoo and their lesser "partners in crime."
The report from "Reporters Without Borders" came out last week. It basically says that Yahoo is by far the worst offender when it comes to censorship in China among search engine providers.
To conduct their experiment, the organization chose six key words or phrases deemed to be politically sensitive to the Chinese government. They then ran those terms through each of three search engines to determine a rate of censorship.
The other two search engines, google.cn and msn.cn (the Chinese subsidiaries of their dot com parents), scored 83 and 78 percent respectively in returning so-called "acceptable" sites.
Yahoo returned a whopping 97 percent.
Even a Chinese search engine named 'Baidu' had a better score than Yahoo.
By contrast, if you go to the U.S. domestic site for Google and search using the exact same keywords, the rate of return for pro-China sites is just 28 percent.
The report goes on to say that if you use one of the offending phrases on yahoo.cn, it "temporarily blocked" the search tool. If you type in one of these terms on the search tool, first you receive an error message. If you then go back to make a new request, even with a neutral key word, yahoo.cn refuses to respond.
When asked about such practices, the standard response from these companies is something akin to: "that's the cost of doing business in China".
Well, that's just great. So let me ask this: If the Chinese government said you had to start sacrificing a goat before every work shift to appease the Internet gods, would that be the cost of doing business? How about if they mandated that these companies had to start hiring children as part of an "early education program"? What if they said that you had to start whipping workers who failed to meet certain production quotas?
Would these companies comply? Is this also the cost of doing business with a country that engages in practices we'd consider abhorrent if they were taking place in our own?
OK - Maybe this is a little over the top, but my point is: Where do you draw the line? Are we at the point where it's literally "anything for a buck"?
These companies have already been caught engaging in such practices as deleting a journalist's blog and turning information over to the Chinese government - which at the least has led to the conviction and imprisonment of another Chinese journalist. Heaven knows what they've done behind closed doors in terms of aiding and abetting government oppression.
Maybe our government - although not exactly exemplary in protecting privacy themselves - has finally decided it's time to draw the line for them.
As I mentioned earlier, on June 22, a subcommittee of the House passed a bill known as the "Global Online Freedom Act." While not going as far as privacy advocates would like, it does take significant steps to monitor some practices and force compliance with certain principled practices - whether these companies like it or not.
Legislatively speaking, this is of course just the first step in a long process, but at least it demonstrates that such basic issues as human rights and principles still matter to our government, if not corporate America.
This new piece of legislation establishes a set of 'minimum corporate standards' to which businesses that operate in China would have to adhere. They would be barred from retaining any electronic communication, such as e-mails and IMs, on servers or other such storage devices that are physically located in any country classified by the government as "Internet-restricting." Besides China, this list could include Belarus, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, North Korea, Tunisia and Vietnam.
I should mention that Google's founders recently stated they plan to "re-evaluate" their business practices in China, although they have yet to take any concrete steps to make changes to their policies.
In the meantime, as this piece of legislation makes it's way down the long road to becoming law, it'll be interesting to see what efforts these companies make to crush, or at least water-down the bill. How many millions of dollars do you suppose they'll be willing to spend just to retain the ability to suppress freedom in a place where freedom is still a light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel?
Please keep this legislation in mind and offer support for it to your representatives. After all - people living under repressive regimes are humans just like you and me - just not so lucky.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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