Thursday, February 23, 2006

Too Much Ado in Congress Over China and the Internet

Editor's Note: America shouldn't tell China how its citizens should use the Internet, the writer says. George Koo is an international business consultant and contributor to New America Media. (First appeared in and subsequently reprinted in San Francisco Chronicle.)

SAN JOSE, Calif.--The current Congressional furor over China's Internet firewall can be boiled down to one simple conclusion: In my house, I rule; in your house, I also rule. In other words, we Americans insist that the Chinese should make use of the Internet in the same way we do.

This kind of logic makes as much sense as insisting that Beijing grant a broadcasting license to Voice of America inside China. So far, not even our hubris has reached that patently ludicrous conclusion.

In fact, the information and messages we think the Chinese people should not be deprived of are beamed by Voice of America from outside of China, not from within. If Google, Yahoo et al. wish to permit unfiltered access to all sorts of information to the people of China, they can. Just do it from outside of China.

In order to operate from inside China, it seems obvious that the companies would have to abide by the rules and regulations of the host country. We may not like those rules, but that's what sovereignty is all about.

Congress takes a different view, equating China's Internet policy to violation of human rights and denial of freedom of speech. Silicon Valley Internet companies are accused of dastardly complicity. Yet, ask Web surfers in China for their reaction, they merely shrug and cannot understand what the fuss is all about.

What about the human rights of journalists jailed in China for their indiscretion on the Net? In the same light, what about the many hapless innocent people caught in the U.S. fight against terrorism now languishing in Guantanamo or who were outsourced to third countries for torture? We may argue as to which is a greater violation of human rights, but ultimately, the resolution will come from within and not be dictated by another foreign authority.

In China, people use the Internet to play games, read the news and socialize in chat groups. Few use the Internet to purvey political messages; most do not care and do not feel deprived.

It's not as if China actively discourages use of and access to the Internet. Just the opposite: From about 1 million users in 1998, China has seen an increase to around 110 million users in just seven years. It will soon overtake the United States as the largest market of Internet users. Policy-makers in Beijing see the importance of information flow to economic growth more clearly than perhaps anywhere else.

Naturally, as China's market grows, it becomes increasingly difficult for Silicon Valley companies to ignore. Congress seems to think that China needs Silicon Valley technology more than the companies need the market. Not so. Chinese Internet users prefer China's Baidu's search engine over Google by a wide margin. Baidu's very success drove Google to entering the market. Huawei and Ztech are offering lower-cost networking switches to compete with Cisco. Yahoo leapfrogged its own effort to penetrate the Chinese market by spending $1 billion for a large stake in Alibaba, the most successful e-commerce Web site in that country.

Beijing's desire to control the flow of content while encouraging popular access are not mutually compatible over the long haul, so there's going to more information than controls. The situation fits the classic Chinese term for contradiction, mao dun, i.e., spear and shield. As technology advances, the power of the Internet will continue to grow and any firewall technology (the shield) will always play catch-up.

One of the Chinese government's reasons for the firewall is to restrict access to pornography in cyberspace. Its neighbor Taiwan, lacking such control, is a major source of purveyors of smut. It will be interesting to see how this contradiction plays out as the two sides entwine even more deeply in their economic integration.

Last November, Washington-based Pew Research announced the results of their global attitudes survey involving the people of 18 countries including China and the United States. One of the questions asked was, "How satisfied are you with the way things are in your country?" China scored the highest among the 18 countries with 72 percent indicating satisfaction and 19 percent not satisfied. In the United States, the results were reversed with merely 39 percent satisfied and 57 percent not.

Perhaps Congress was unaware of the Pew survey results since they were reported by few in the U.S. media. Rather than holding Congressional hearings on why China should make their cyberspace more open, shouldn't our elected politicians show more concern on why a mere 39 percent of our citizens are happy with the way things are going here?