There has been much debate recently over decisions by certain U. S. companies to accede to censorship requirements imposed by the Chinese government in order to provide Internet access in China. While certainly censorship of any kind is to be discouraged, much of the indignation is misplaced, in my view. This is, perhaps, because I am a pragmatist-even though I do believe that my moral compass is fully engaged with the arrow faithfully facing north. I also think we are too willing to vilify certain regimes while graciously excusing others.
So, what exactly is happening in China? Here is some quick background. Consistent with most regulated industries in China (and virtually all industries are regulated in China), there is a maze of laws and regulations imposed on companies wishing to offer Internet access. China implements access controls on ISPs, ICPs, Internet subscribers and cybercafﾂ users. Access control has been a part of China's Internet filtering system for many years. In February 1994, one year before the Internet became commercially available in China, the State Council (the premiere governing body in China) gave the Minister of Public Security overall responsibility for supervision of the Internet. Regulation of the Internet has grown more comprehensive, specific and extensive over recent years.
China maintains extremely strong controls over the material that users are allowed to post and to access on the Internet. These include long, complex and expensive licensing requirements, mandatory registration and inspections, and broad restrictions on permissible types of content. China also tries to control how its citizens use the Internet. In 1997, the Ministry for Public Security issued comprehensive regulations governing Internet use in an effort to "strengthen the security and the protection of computer information networks and of the Internet, and to preserve the social order and social stability."
Content control in China occurs through informal as well as formal measures. The Internet Society of China pressures content and access providers to agree to a "Public Pledge of Self Regulation and Professional Ethics." (This sounds a lot like the voluntary self-regulation established by the U.S. broadcast industry many years ago and generally still followed today.) ISPs perform self-censorship, including using employees who lead teams of volunteers to monitor and moderate chat rooms and bulletin boards-such monitoring of chat rooms and bulletin boards also occurs in the U.S. and other democratic regimes in an effort to protect the public. Interestingly, reports are that some leading US technology firms are starting to craft guidelines for the Internet in China in an effort to convince the Chinese government, at some point in the future, to permit industry self-regulation-similar to the Sullivan Principles developed in the 1970s which marshaled US corporate divestment in apartheid South Africa.
Most recently, certain ISPs have agreed to establish a country-specific site for their Chinese users-as, by the way, they have done in many other countries-which will block access to certain sites. When a user in China attempts to access a blocked site, they will receive a message that explains that the government has required the removal of that site. So, the user will know the reason for his or her inability to access the desired URL. By the way, this is in contrast to other democratic regimes where certain sites are blocked in the public interest but there is no notification to the user-the search merely does not turn up the blocked site.
Companies are bound to adhere to the laws and regulations of the countries in which they operate. Certainly, companies may decide that operating in certain countries is anathema to their standards and principals due to a variety of considerations-whether it is censorship, human rights violations, treatment of women and children, oppression of religious freedoms, and the list goes on. But, if ISPs are at least notifying their users as to the reason a particular site is not accessible, then they are assisting, in my view, in educating the public as to the governmental policies that are affecting their daily lives.
In short, the very act of censoring access to certain Internet sites is serving a vital role in China, provided the ISPs do incorporate such notifications. And, what is the alternative? Why, of course, it is for ISPs to boycott China and tell the Chinese government that they will offer Internet services in China when the Chinese government changes its policies. So, in that scenario, who exactly is helped and who is hurt? Well, I guess those ISPs could conceivably earn respect for standing up to an "oppressive regime" (assuming they don't face shareholder suits for walking away from the largest growing economy in the world). Without meaning to sound too cynical, in our society that "good will" would last about a minute and a half.
But, more importantly, those who would be significantly and fundamentally hurt would be the Chinese people who would not have the same level of access to the Internet with its diversity of views and voices-to be sure, not as diverse as would be the case without any restrictions. And, how effective does anyone think those restrictions are really going to be in the long run? The Chinese government will not be able to block all potentially critical information. Certainly, sites covering the Falun Gong, Tibet, and Taiwan are and will continue to be blocked. And, provided there is disclosure as to the source of the block, then the Chinese people will be better informed as to the policies and actions of their government-which is always the first step to effecting change. But, even with such restrictions, the Chinese people will learn more about other cultures, about education, about health, about world events, and the list goes on.
Over the course of human history, human beings have been forced to make compromises in an effort to make progress. On balance, this compromise is well worth the potential gain to the Chinese people.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2006 (17:2), pp. 11,24.