Internet firms need to play by China's rules
America's Internet giants, including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, appear to be caving to market lust by agreeing to conditions imposed by the Chinese government in exchange for access to that enormous market.
But let's think this through.
China insists that these companies can enter the market only if they agree to the government's rules about what types of information can be made available to its citizens. China's government-sanctioned filter would steer Google users there away from sites that involve pornography, anything harmful to children, and information that would encourage political dissent.
From a Western perspective, this seems odious. From a democratic view, the cure for bad information is good information — not suppression.
But China is not a democracy; it's far from an ideal world. The government's overriding interest is in promoting stability and social order.
The choice for Google, Yahoo and the others is stark: Stand on principle and walk away. Or work with the Chinese government.
"In an imperfect world, we had to make an imperfect choice," said Elliot Schrage, vice president of global communications and public affairs for Google, which introduced a censored Chinese site that filters results for queries including "Tiananmen Square" and "democracy."
But who would be served by walking away? Slowly but surely, China will open up, and our technology companies should be part of that process.
But there is a line that no ethical company should cross: It should not make its service an agent or instrument of government. This includes unilaterally giving authorities the names and other information about users who are accessing sites the government finds suspicious.
Indeed, Yahoo has been accused of providing information from its files to Chinese authorities that led to the arrest and imprisonment of an online Internet writer and democracy activist; Yahoo responded by saying it only provided information as required by law, and that it was "distressed" by the allegation.
Internet firms must obey the law. But they must resist any effort, whether at home or abroad, to become willing agents of the authorities.
Chinese authorities ask that providers agree to three conditions:
Far from perfect, surely. But in the nature of the information revolution, once people have access to some information, they will find ways to access it all — good and bad.
China cannot resist this tide over the long haul. It is in everyone's interest that U.S. technology companies stay the course.