Post Date: February 21, 2006

The following article by Clinical Professor John Palfrey and Berkman Fellow Rebecca MacKinnon, Censorship Inc., was published in the February 27, 2006 issue of Newsweek.

Executives of some of the world’s most powerful companies squirmed in their seats last week as U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (Democrat of California), a Holocaust survivor, lectured them about their role in helping China censor the Internet. “These companies tell us that they will change China,” he told them. “But China has already changed them.” The executives—from Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo—argued that China is better off because they’re there. Chinese people have much greater access to information and more ways to express themselves than ever before.Both arguments have merit. If U.S. Internet companies were forced to pull out of China completely, we would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. An unfettered Internet is an extraordinary tool for activists, helping them grow new networks at virtually no cost. But it’s also true that China has managed to bend the values of U.S. tech companies in ways that could have a significant effect on the evolution of the Internet, not only in China but throughout the world.

China’s effort to keep sensitive information from reaching its citizens is the envy of every authoritarian regime in the world, but it is unlikely to hold up over the long run. The sheer volume of messages, the architecture of the Internet itself and the cleverness of Internet users are already overwhelming state censors. China’s leaders understand this. That’s why they’re increasingly relying on private firms to do their dirty work, blocking speech and turning over the identity of citizens who use the Internet as an organizing tool. The Great Firewall of China isn’t the state’s only weapon; there is also Censorship Inc.

Private firms already act as censors in China. By decree, search engines limit the results they show to users. Cybercafes collect personal information about their patrons. E-mail service providers turn over account information. Hosts of blog services—Chinese and foreign—stop users from publishing words that the state might think are subversive. To do business in China, all Internet companies are building censorship into their business processes. This will continue so long as the government seeks to control what people see and say online. There is no other way to do the job. American technology companies will remain a target of Beijing’s demands as long as the cat-and-mouse game between censors and citizens continues.

At least three dozen governments around the world try hard to control the online environment. Many of the most extensive efforts are found in regimes in the Middle East, in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, according to the OpenNet Initiative. Asian regimes, like Uzbekistan, Burma and Vietnam also filter the Internet. But no state approaches the censorship-and-surveillance apparatus of China. It’s therefore not surprising that censorship has become a popular Chinese export. Techniques and software for Internet control, developed in China, are now being applied in countries like Vietnam and Iran.

China has also proved that censorship pays: it has developed a successful model for how government and business can collaborate to censor a nation’s Internet activities. This model could be applied in any country. If we’re not careful, we may wake up one day to discover that what a person can see and do on the Web will be radically different depending on which country he or she lives in: the Internet will become “The Internets.” And U.S. tech firms won’t have much of value left to sell if the Internet ceases to be the wonderful, world-connecting thing it is today. They must find a way to make their money in China without checking their values at the border. Morality aside, the long-term survival of their industry depends on it.

Rebecca MacKinnon is a fellow and John Palfrey is clinical professor of law and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.