Business, Politics Intertwine for Internet Businesses in China
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Internet giant Yahoo! has been taking heat from human rights organizations for turning over the name of a dissident journalist to Chinese authorities. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, Yahoo! is just one of many American companies in China that have to deal with the Chinese government's attempts to impose tight control on the use of the Internet.
LAURA SYDELL reporting:
In the year since they've established themselves in China, Yahoo! has walked a fine line between being an Internet company and following the local laws.
Ms. LUCY MARIAN(ph) (Reporters Without Borders): They've been censoring themselves for a while, and now they went even further in helping Chinese authorities to identify this journalist and basically to put him in jail.
SYDELL: That's Lucy Marian of Reporters Without Borders, a human rights organization which obtained court papers showing Yahoo!'s role in the case of Shi Tao. When asked by Chinese authorities, Yahoo! revealed he was the author of an anonymous e-mail sent to a New York human rights group. The e-mail said that the Chinese government had warned officials in the media that pro-democracy dissidents might agitate on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising. The journalist, Shi Tao, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Yahoo! has responded by saying that it didn't know why the government wanted Shi's name and they followed the laws in the countries in which they operate. Lucy Marian doesn't buy that.
Ms. MARIAN: This is a poor excuse. I mean, Yahoo! is not a local company under Chinese law. It's a multinational and it has definitely responsibilities promoting American and Western standards abroad.
SYDELL: But Yahoo! is not alone in its compliance with Chinese authorities. While Yahoo! and Microsoft have both fought against restrictions on the Web in the West, both companies say in China they simply comply with the local laws. Neither company would comment for this story on tape. Columbia Law School Professor Kim Wu says complying with China's laws means government control of the Internet. For example, Microsoft had to censor its blogs.
Professor KIM WU (Columbia Law School): The titles of blogs cannot refer to democracy or free speech or Taiwanese independence.
SYDELL: Even Google which has smaller operations in China has had to make adjustments in response to the Chinese censors, Wu says. He believes that in bending to the will of Chinese authorities, these companies are reshaping the Internet. He says the great firewall of China is built with American bricks.
Prof. WU: China is trying to refashion the Internet within its border in its own image. It's trying to take what was originally designed as a very libertarian open network and design it into a network which still has all the economic benefits of the Internet but at some fundamental level remains controlled.
SYDELL: And it's not only software but also hardware, says Wu. He notes that the Chinese government buys routers from Cisco Systems, which the government then uses to block full access to the Internet. Still, some argue that these companies have little choice. John Battelle is the author of "The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture."
Mr. JOHN BATTELLE ( Author, "The Search"): Companies that are in a competitive marketplace, like Google and Yahoo!, where their competition is already aggressively in the marketplace, it's hard for them to defend not going in on principle. Their shareholders will lose value and they have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders.
SYDELL: Once these companies are in China, they take a great risk if they don't comply with the law, says Deirdre Mulligan, professor of law at University of California, Berkeley.
Professor DEIRDRE MULLIGAN (University of California, Berkeley): If you have employees within a country, the ramifications of not working with the government when they come with legal process to obtain information, you could very well find yourself with employees in jail.
SYDELL: Many observers agree that all Internet companies in China are likely to one day find themselves in a similar position to Yahoo! Some may already have quietly handed over names. Xiao Qiang, a human rights activist who runs the China Internet Project at University of California-Berkeley, says he's not asking these companies to leave China but just to put up a fight.
Mr. XIAO QIANG (University of California-Berkeley): Those companies have huge leverage. They have more leverage probably than any other organizations or individuals or, to some degree, more than a lot of governments.
SYDELL: Xiao believes that all Western businesses in China can be a force for positive change there. In particular, he hopes that Internet companies which have opened up the world to millions of people in the West will play a greater role doing just that in China. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.
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