Should Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft Help China Filter Searches?

Daniel Solove
Founder of TeachPrivacy

China Internet Shaming

An interesting article from Salon discusses how Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft assist the Chinese government with censorship. The companies filter out search results that the government wants to censor, and they help the government track down individuals engaging in criticism and dissent:

To conduct business in China, popular Internet companies Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have had to accommodate a regime that forbids free speech, bars political parties and jails journalists. This means filtering searches on their sites, censoring news and providing evidence in the trials of political dissidents — or risk having their sites blocked in China. Forced to choose between ignoring the world’s hottest market or implicitly endorsing a system of censorship that a recent Harvard study called “the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world,” the companies have decided to cooperate.

“Business is business,” Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba.com, which controls Yahoo China, told the Financial Times. “It’s not politics.”

How do companies cooperate? The article explains:

A Yahoo search for “Taiwan Independence” will return only sites the government has approved. And this summer, Microsoft, which has more than 1,000 employees in China, began barring words like “democracy,” “freedom” and “human rights” from the titles that users gave their blog postings. . . .

Google began accommodating the censors long before it had a formal presence in the country. Chinese-language Google news searches filter out results from sources like Voice of America and the dissident Epoch Times.

Filtering out sites is one thing, but what about assisting the government in tracking down dissents engaging in free speech? The article states:

In September, Reporters Without Borders revealed that Yahoo had supplied information used to convict Shi Tao, a journalist who used a Yahoo account to e-mail a description of reporting restrictions during the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre to a U. S.-based dissident group. After Yahoo linked the e-mail with Shi’s computer, he was convicted of revealing state secrets and sentenced to 10 years in prison. . . .

Should Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft be cooperating? Is business always business? Or should businesses refuse to cooperate with certain foreign legal regimes? If it is acceptable for businesses to cooperate, is there a limit to the level of cooperation that should be provided?

These questions don’t have an easy answer. Is it acceptable when Yahoo or Google help France and Germany filter out pro-Nazi websites? Hypothetically, would it have been acceptable for Yahoo or Google to have helped the Nazi regime in identifying Jews? Where should the line be drawn?

For more on China’s filtering, see Internet Filtering in China in 2004-2005: A Country Study.

Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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