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The China Syndrome

In America, where Google is fighting the Justice Department's efforts to secure the company's records of its users search habits, it might look like Internet companies consider keeping private information about users a significant priority. But while the Internet may be global, that corporate philosophy is decidedly not.

Yahoo is now being accused of providing Chinese authorities with information that led to the arrest of writer Li Zhi. His efforts to join the China Democracy Party, Reuters reports, have landed him an eight year prison sentence for "inciting subversion." In September, Yahoo was hammered for allegedly helping Chinese authorities identify Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who was accused of "illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities" and sentenced to ten years in prison. He reportedly sent an email summarizing an internal Communist Party directive to a foreign source using a Yahoo email account. The company provided the Chinese government with his account holder information.

Now the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders are calling on Yahoo to disclose what information it has turned over to the Chinese government. They want to know how many Chinese citizens have gone to jail on the basis of information provided by Yahoo. "Now we know Yahoo works regularly and efficiently with the Chinese police," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

Yahoo argues that it has no choice but to comply with Chinese authorities, and that it's ultimately for the greater good. "The choice is not whether to comply with law enforcement demands for information. The choice is whether to remain in the country. We believe that the Internet is a positive force in China," said Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako, who added that Yahoo was "distressed" by the details of the Shi Tao case.

Erick Schonfeld is skeptical of that logic. "…where are the proof points of "positive force" that counterbalance what's been done to Shi Tao or Li Zhi?," he writes. "Each jailed dissident convicted based on information Yahoo (or Google or Microsoft or any American company) gave to the Chinese government belies the notion of the Internet ultimately being good for China." He adds: "It's one thing to comply with the law in foreign countries. It is another to become a surveillance arm in those countries or to be complicit in censoring their citizens."

In December, Microsoft shut down a blog run by Michael Anti under Chinese government orders, and in June it admitted to banning the words "democracy" and "freedom" from the Chinese version of the MSN Web site. Last month, Google agreed to launch versions of its Web sites that censor material Chinese authorities find objectionable. The Chinese government, Reuters writes, has "been pressuring mainstream Internet news Web sites in what analysts say is a tightening of the atmosphere for intellectuals."

China is the world's second largest Internet market, and the aggressive efforts of U.S. Internet companies to gain a foothold there have put them in a position where they must weigh potential profits against high minded principles. U.S. lawmakers are now holding hearings to look at American Internet companies that are cooperating with Chinese censors. It should be noted that the lines here are not entirely clear: Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN and America Online have complied with the U.S. government request that Google is now fighting, though no Internet company has been asked to make the kinds of concessions in America that China seems to be demanding.

Where you come down on this issue ultimately rests on whether you feel an Internet that is subject to government censorship is still one worth having. Censorship seems to be anathema to the very nature of the Web, but one could argue, as Yahoo has, that an Internet that has been somewhat compromised is still better than none at all. Do Chinese civilians really need to be able to search for the word "democracy" to make the Internet worth their while? Is the censorship worth accepting if it means allowing people access to even a small portion of the Internet's vast resources? Or should U.S. companies refuse to comply with foreign regulations if it means they have to turn over user information and restrict free access to information?