Law in the Internet Society

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Impediments to freedom of expression in China: Filtering Software or Business Interests?

-- By LaurenKlein - 09 Dec 2009


While much concern about censorship are directed to the software and architecture of the Internet, ultimately American web businesses play an increasingly larger role in promoting, if not ensuring, free expression in foreign nations such as China.

Lokman Tsui argues that the Chinese government does not simply filter but “uses a mix of socio-legal, political and economic methods to censor; a fact companies such as Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Google have experienced themselves.”(p. 12) The problem is not that social network sites, blog software or search engines are banned from China’s network, but any company that wants to do business with China must abide by China’s rules. In this way, much of the censorship "is carried out not by the government’s Internet police, but by Chinese Web hosting companies, which are being held legally responsible for what their users publish,” Evgeny Morozov and Rebecca MacKinnon write.

Google: Foreign Business Interests

Perhaps the quintessential example of this was when Google entered the Chinese market. In 2006 bought the domain name,, and the American company was granted an Internet Content Provider license that legitimized their presence on China’s network. The license, however, came with an agreement from Google’s top executives to self-censor in accordance with what Chinese authorities had already banned from the Chinese Web.

Eventually the Google founders conceded that their policy in China contradicted with their business mantra in the United States, but that for now, they felt that this was the best approach. Over time they said the company might have more of a chance to impact access to information in China. A Human Rights Watch report on Google’s presence in the Chinese market also noted that the censored, “while denying access to the full range of information available on the World Wide Web, still enables the Chinese user to access substantially more information on sensitive political and religious subjects than its Chinese competitors.”

The lack of public outcry from China’s press regarding Google’s censorship policies would seem to support one of Tsui’s arguments that about 82 percent of Chinese people acknowledge the government has the right to censor and make companies comply in this regard since the government is there to protect them.

So Google executives went all in for a chance to get millions of new Internet users. The company’s problems in China are not viewed as ones of overcoming censorship, but ones from the Chinese government who decry the company as a foreign invader. In order for Google China to succeed, then, the company would have to let China change its practices — as opposed to the foreign company changing the Chinese government’s practices. Human Rights Watch wouldn't allow Gap to exploit child labor in India under the guise that it helps children and their families who need the income, so how come they can apply that logic to the case of Google in China?

International policymakers began efforts over the last two years at institutionalizing “best standards” of Internet filtering. The Global Network Initiative is one such effort. Oddly enough, Google is a participant in this project and yet maintains its self-censorship practices in China. This would indicate that these “volunteer” initiatives at creating global standards of free press and information flows via Internet use are not particularly effective yet; certainly not in a growing economic power with such a huge market of consumers, like China.

Green Dam: The filtering software

There is enough “authoritarian deliberation” within China so that not all of the government’s practices are tolerated politely. The best example of this is the case of the Green Dam Youth Escort Software. In May 2009, Chinese authorities announced they would require all computers sold in China to have Green Dam software installed by July 1, 2009. According to official reports, this software would better ensure that pornography, violent or otherwise harmful content would be kept off computer screens and out of children’s view. Testers of the software that included teams at Universities of Michigan and Harvard and Toronoto showed, however, that many of the keywords related to politically sensitive terms such as Falun Gong.

Criticism of this initiative quickly erupted partly because the software could be downloaded by anyone, tested and proved to be a harmful service. The outcry began to gain some political teeth in China when a satirical image spread virally on the Internet. The image was of a Green Dam Girl, rabbits in tow (the Green Dam logo), and a River Crab logo on her hat. In Mandarin, the term River Crab is a homonym for the word harmonize; Chinese officials are known for encouraging the Chinese people to support the efforts of the government in order to create a “harmonious society.” She is often portrayed as harassing computer users. The emergence of a cultural icon to slam the efforts of the government’s follows MacKinnon? ’s argument that political dissent in China often comes in the form of artistic satire via the Internet.

The ability of the Green Dam Girl image to help non-tech citizens understand the impact of Green Dam on their Web-use, helped rally support around lawyers such as Li Fangping, who were putting pressure on Chinese officials to retract the software installation mandate.

After four weeks of domestic and foreign scrutiny of the software, the government retracted their mandate. Instead, users now had a choice to install the software or not. While this government change of policy led some to believe the Internet was the ultimate tool for political dissent, other experts of China and censorship remained only cautiously optimistic. MacKinnon? argues that the Chinese government has retracted on other contentious issues as well, but ultimately found ways to achieve their goals. Ultimately control of information, even via an open Internet rest in the hands of the companies that develop the software, manage the Web services and create the platforms for the average citizen to create content on.


So the Green Dam episode “brings us back to companies… Companies have a duty as global citizens to do all they can to protect users' universally recognized right to free expression, and to avoid becoming opaque extensions of incumbent power -- be it in China or Britain,” MacKinnon wrote in a Wall Street Journal Article.

Arguing that the “Great Firewall” is the only barrier to open political debate and thereby taking it down via international pressure and standards of free press, shows a misreading of the institutions and political mindset in place in China. As with traditional media, the Chinese government is very much engaged in controlling the message. They understand, however, that with this new technology they must present an appearance of transparency and discourse. So when filtering does occur it is in light of protection from “harmful” content.

In the case of China, a foreign company simply complying with the status quo of censorship is not enough of a problem for public upheaval. The technical aspects of censoring the Internet, however, while more blatant are perhaps less threatening to the development of civil society in repressive regimes such as China than those created by foreign business interests.

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