Microsoft shut down a Chinese blogger recently because he discussed the government’s firing of a newspaper editor in Beijing. A few weeks later, Google announced plans to offer Chinese versions of its search and news sites that censor material the Chinese government finds offensive, arguing that censored service is better than nothing.
As the Internet matures into a global medium for both commerce and information, can these uses coexist? Or must companies trample free speech to do business in China?
The answer isn’t clear. Microsoft, Google and Yahoo (which has been accused of providing information to the Chinese government that led to a journalist being jailed) have asked Congress for help. The three companies want the U.S. government to redefine free trade to include the free flow of information. An official government stand against censorship would provide these companies with a negotiating tool when they are asked to censor their sites abroad.
The State Department is investigating the policy aspects of Internet freedom. But Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who heads a House subcommittee on human rights, says U.S. companies shouldn’t help China deprive people of free speech.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is developing a system to block content that a government objects to while keeping it available to the rest of the world. Free speech advocates say this shows Microsoft is aware of its ethical dilemma, but they criticize the company’s proposed solution.