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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Bricks in the ‘Great Firewall’

    Complying with censorship a tough tradeoff for Web companies

    Few are more attuned to the power of the Internet than the world’s most repressive authoritarian regimes. When civil unrest in Myanmar reached a tipping point in September, the military cut off all Internet access in an attempt to quell dissent. Just this week, Internet censorship was strengthened in Pakistan, denying access to media and opposition Web sites in the wake of Pervez Musharraf’s emergency declaration. And the extensive “”Golden Shield”” censorship and surveillance project in the People’s Republic of China is more popularly known as the “”Great Firewall of China.””

    However, thanks to tools and technology provided online, many modern access restrictions are easily circumvented. In Burma, news of demonstrations leaked out on camera phones and text messages. In Pakistan, news reports are being circulated on Blackberries. And in China, a simple proxy can dodge the constraints of state censorship software.

    Technology firms have made billions by organizing information on the Internet and developing tools to efficiently and easily access it. But more and more, they are complicit with state censorship – or even peddling tools of their own creation designed to deny access or cripple software and prevent the flow of information.

    Tuesday, Jerry Yang, founder and CEO of Yahoo, was called in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and rebuked for turning over information about Shi Tao, a dissident journalist, to Chinese authorities in 2004. Tao, accused of using a Yahoo e-mail account to leak a memo on government media restrictions, was sentenced in 2005 to 10 years in prison – where he remains today. At the hearing, Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the committee, offered harsh criticism, telling Yang “”while technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.””

    Millions upon millions of consumers and one of the world’s fastest growing economies make China a lucrative market for search and software companies like Yahoo and Google. And although it’s easy to denounce them for complying with censorship and subpoena requests from foreign autocrats, providing search tools and e-mail in the darker corners of the globe is far from a clear-cut moral issue.

    Search engines and software companies are faced with a tricky trade-off when it comes to censorship: whether to deny access to information altogether by standing against state restrictions, or to allow as much information as possible while complying with their cowardly demands. And although many of us in the enlightened world are revolted by the very idea of state censorship, oftentimes, providing some Internet access is better than risking detachment from the rest of the world.

    Yang defended Yahoo’s involvement in China, saying, “”We continue to believe in engagement in markets like China”” because “”despite broad limitations on sensitive political subjects, Chinese citizens know more than ever before about local public health issues, environmental causes, politics, corruption, consumer choice, job opportunities and even some foreign affairs.””

    But there’s a big difference between offering access to information and selling out dissident democratic activists. Although companies like Yahoo and Google do more good than harm when exposed to passive restrictions, they should have the moral backbone to refuse to actively participate in authoritarian oppression. We hope Yahoo’s congressional admonishment has taught the firm a lesson – but we also recognize the value of organizing information in nations where it is needed most.

    OPINIONS BOARD: Editorials are determined by the Wildcat Opinions Board and written by one of its members. They are Justyn Dillingham, Allison Hornick, Sarah Keeler and Connor Mendenhall.

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