Guest column: Where networking vendors are destined to fail

Americans talk a lot about "freedom". In fact, Americans tend to exercise a great deal of freedom in defining their concept of freedom, so that the concept seems rather alien not only to undemocratic societies, but to other democratic societies as well.

The American concept seems to be more like unrestricted licence, so that you have situations in which wackos have easy access to guns, thereby allowing them to do really free-spirited things like blowing away their classmates.

Of course, that's a dandy thing from an international commerce perspective, since gun manufacturers in countries like the UK and Italy, where the guns they manufacture are illegal, have an unquenchable market for their goods in the US.

So the fact that different societies' concepts of freedom have an impact on international commerce is nothing new. Nor is the tendency to capitalise on those differences. But it has certainly become more interesting, now that the information age is upon us. To explain what I mean, I need to go off on a bit of a tangent.

The media reports of last week's clampdown on the Mainland [of China] of the Falun Gong group included vivid, and disturbing, coverage of the authorities engaged in "book burnings" -- mass destruction of the group's books and audiovisual materials. Few scenes are as chilling to those who cherish the freedom of information.

Coverage of the destruction included photos of literature being fed through shredders and descriptions of books being piled on conveyor belts and dumped into vats of pulp.

Now imagine, if you will, that a big US company supplied all the paper and ink and printing equipment that enabled all of that Falun Gong literature to be produced. And then imagine that the same company saw a demand to be filled and money to be made, and supplied the shredders and conveyor belts and pulp vats to destroy all of that literature.

That, in a metaphorical sense, describes the business model that networking equipment vendors face in China. It's not something they're normally comfortable talking about, but occasionally they open up a little.

I had lunch last week with a former Cisco Systems manager who's now a manager at Fore Systems. When I asked him about Fore's business in China, he was quite candid about where he sees the greatest opportunity. "Security", he said with a grin.

He meant Security as in Public Security -- you know, as in the ministry that oversees book burnings. The same vendors from Western democracies that have made untold sums of money by supplying China with an information infrastructure -- and the mind-expanding opportunities that infrastructure has given a steadily growing segment of China's population -- are in the paradoxical position of supplying the technology the Chinese authorities want in order to be able to block the people's access to information that can't be destroyed by a bonfire or a paper shredder. That the demand for those services simply doesn't exist in the vendors' home countries is OK -- China has an unquenchable thirst for themThe saving grace is that stifling the flow of information on the Internet is a lot more complicated than smashing video cassettes with a steam roller. I'm all for free commerce, but China's resources shouldn't be wasted on futile attempts to harness the Internet for political expediency. Let the vendors earn the big bucks by delivering something of lasting value. The freedom of information is inalienable. And any attempt to deny an inalienable freedom is destined to fail.

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