Magazine article Newsweek International

Opinion: Censorship Inc. If They're Not Careful, Western Tech Companies Could Break Up the Web

Magazine article Newsweek International

Opinion: Censorship Inc. If They're Not Careful, Western Tech Companies Could Break Up the Web

Article excerpt

Byline: Rebecca Mackinnon and John Palfrey (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.)

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. …

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