Web content providers based in the U.S. should think twice before entering the Chinese market, given a track record of censorship and attempts by the government there to monitor the Internet activities of dissidents, a group of China watchers said Wednesday.
With Google's recent announcement that it might pull out of the Chinese market because of censorship and hacking attacks, other providers of Web content should take the opportunity to examine whether it's worth doing business in the country, said Tim Wu, a communications law professor at the Columbia Law School.
While Internet businesses have argued that their presence in China helps promote democratic ideals, companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo must realize they are content providers that should take principled stands against censorship, Wu said. Some of the Web companies operating in China have "very limited self-awareness that they are actually media companies," he said at a New America Foundation event.
The U.S. Department of State has taken Google's complaints seriously and has asked the Chinese government for an explanation, added Alec Ross, senior advisor for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On Thursday, Clinton will announce a series of new Internet freedom initiatives, but the speech was not prompted by Google's recent complaints, Ross said at the event.
There are "real challenges" to freedom of speech online in many countries, not just China, Ross said. About 31 percent of the world's people live in countries with Internet censorship, he said.
Clinton's speech on Thursday will lay out a series of initiatives to drive freedom of speech on the Internet, he said. Clinton will also focus on the economic benefits of a free Internet, he added. It's important to push other countries to embrace Internet freedom, he said.
"Do we want to live in a world where there is one Internet, where there is knowledge commons from which we can all draw?" he said. "Or do we want to live in a world where the information you have access to, the knowledge you have access to, is based on what country you live in and whether there's censorship in those countries?"
However, Wu and other speakers at the New America event questioned whether U.S. Internet companies should stay in China under the current conditions. It was "worth a shot" for Google to set up a Chinese business, but U.S. businesses have had to compromise their values to operate in China, Wu said.
The problem is larger than China's so-called "great firewall," added Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices Online, an international network of bloggers and journalists. The Chinese government forces business to show "self-discipline" about what Internet content they share with Chinese users, and will yank the licenses of businesses that don't comply, she said.
"Within the Chinese domestic Web, censorship is outsourced to the private sector," she said. "The private sector is actually censoring itself."
While people in China can often circumvent the Chinese government's Web filters, they can't get to content that's basically been deleted by these private businesses, she said.
MacKinnon praised Google for objecting to the censorship and for making what she perceived to be a stand against Internet censorship in general. Growing efforts to censor the Internet, even in democratic countries, would be bad for Google's business in the long term, she said.
"Google's business model ... is banking on a free and open Internet," she said. "Their business will not succeed if the Internet becomes overly balkanized. This happens to be a case where doing the right thing and doing the thing that is in Google's greatest self-interest ... happen to converge."
Panel moderator James Fallows, a correspondent with The Atlantic Monthly, argued that Google's presence in China gave residents there more information about the outside world than they would otherwise have had. "China was sort of forced to be part of the world in a way that would be less so if Google withdrew," he said.
But Evgeny Morozov, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy Magazine, said Google would be doing the right thing to leave China. The Chinese government has changed the rules by increasing pressure on Google to censor itself, he said.
"The Chinese government is not exactly a reliable business partner," he said.