February 15, 2006

Reined In


From CNN: Tech giants-lawmakers debate censorship.

Four U.S. tech giants faced withering questioning at a congressional hearing Wednesday, with lawmakers accusing them of helping China suppress dissent in return for access to a booming Internet market.

Representatives from Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Google Inc. defended themselves before a House of Representatives International Relations subcommittee.

A Google official acknowledged that figuring out China's Internet market "has been a difficult exercise." ...

... Yahoo's Michael Callahan said his company was "very distressed" at having to comply with Chinese law.

Google's Elliot Schrage said his company's decision to censor its Chinese search engine was "not something we did enthusiastically, or something we're proud of at all. ... We have begun a path that we believe will ultimately benefit our users in China."

Republican Rep. Jim Leach suggested that Google had apparently acted "as a functionary of the Chinese government."

"This is astonishing," Leach said.

Lantos, who as a teenager was placed in a Hungarian fascist forced-labor camp, angrily and repeatedly asked whether Yahoo had been in contact with the family of Shi Tao, a journalist critics say Yahoo helped police identify and convict after he criticized human rights abuses in China.

Yahoo's representative eventually said that while Yahoo condemned what happened to Shi, it had not contacted his family.

A New York Times article today indicates that perhaps the tide is turning against censorship in China: Beijing Censors Taken to Task in Party Circles . (via TIA Daily)

A dozen former Communist Party officials and senior scholars, including a onetime secretary to Mao, a party propaganda chief and the retired bosses of some of the country's most powerful newspapers, have denounced the recent closing of a prominent news journal, helping to fuel a growing backlash against censorship.

A public letter issued by the prominent figures, dated Feb. 2 but circulated to journalists in Beijing on Tuesday, appeared to add momentum to a campaign by a few outspoken editors against micromanagement, personnel shuffles and an ever-expanding blacklist of banned topics imposed on China's newspapers, magazines, television stations and Web sites by the party's secretive Propaganda Department.

The letter criticized the department's order on Jan. 24 to shut down Freezing Point, a popular journal of news and opinion, as an example of "malignant management" and an "abuse of power" that violates China's constitutional guarantee of free speech.

The letter did not address Beijing's pressure on Web portals and search engines.

That issue gained attention abroad after Microsoft and Google acknowledged helping the government filter information and Yahoo was accused of providing information from its e-mail accounts that was used to jail dissident writers. The issue will be the subject of Congressional hearings in Washington on Wednesday.

In addition to shutting down Freezing Point, a weekly supplement to China Youth Daily, since late last year, officials responsible for managing the news media have replaced editors of three other publications that developed reputations for breaking news or exploring sensitive political and social issues.

The interventions amounted to the most extensive exertion of press control since President Hu Jintao assumed power three years ago.

But propaganda officials are also facing rare public challenges to their legal authority to take such actions, including a short strike and string of resignations at one newspaper and defiant open letters from two editors elsewhere who had been singled out for censure. Those protests have suggested that some people in China's increasingly market-driven media industry no longer fear the consequences of violating the party line.

The authors of the letter predicted that the country would have difficulty countering the recent surge of social unrest in the countryside unless it allowed the news media more leeway to expose problems that lead to violent protests.

"At the turning point in our history from a totalitarian to a constitutional system, depriving the public of freedom of speech will bring disaster for our social and political transition and give rise to group confrontation and social unrest," the letter said. "Experience has proved that allowing a free flow of ideas can improve stability and alleviate social problems."

Our recent cartoon about Google: A Yen to Censor.

UPDATE I -- Feb. 16: More on censoring internet dissent from Committees of Correspondence.

UPDATE II -- Feb. 17: Gus Van Horn has more: A Chinese Hero.

Posted by Forkum at February 15, 2006 04:35 PM