Gray Area: The Future of Chinese Internet

Article excerpt

Morgan Stanley estimated that there were around 94 million Chinese Internet users at the end of 2004, making China second only to the United States in total numbers of Internet users. The Chinese government has struggled to hide its citizens from a world of instant messaging, blogging, and e-mailing that entails the free global exchange of ideas. For the government, help has come from an unlikely source: Western software and technology firms have stepped up to aid the government in bringing the Internet to China at the expense of personal liberties and free speech. By choosing to aid the Chinese government in hindering free speech and the rights of Chinese citizens, Western computer companies have missed the opportunity to bring great advances to the oppressed Chinese people.

Companies such as Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco have been vital in the spread of the Internet in China. They have assisted the Chinese government in writing software programs and have provided the basic infrastructure for the expansion of the Internet. Unfortunately, with the help of Western computer companies, the Chinese government has filtered the Internet so that citizens have access only to websites and blogs that either speak highly of communism or do not address politics at all. According to the Berkeley China Internet Project, a program designed to monitor the emergence of the Internet in China, the Chinese government hides websites that contain certain phrases thought to be unfriendly toward its rule, such as freedom, democracy, China-liberal, and falun, a word that refers to the dissident spiritual sect known as the Falun Gong.

The emergence and rapid spread of blogging have posed an even greater challenge to the Chinese government, forcing Beijing to enlist the assistance of Western corporations further in order to smother such a movement. Internet blogs are numerous and hard to track due to their temporary and elusive nature. In the summer of 2005, Microsoft helped to launch MSN Spaces, a blog service that Microsoft filtered in order to eliminate the use of blogs as a medium for political debate and dissent. Bloggers are forbidden to use words considered distasteful by the Chinese government. Any use of such words results in a harsh message: "This topic contains forbidden words. Please delete them."

Possibly the most controversial decision by a US Internet company working in China was Yahoo's decision to turn over personal information to the Chinese government, which led to the imprisonment of a Chinese dissident. …