“Oppressive” and anti-western as Chinese ideologies are, the Chinese market is too lucrative for foreign companies to boycott China. Though transnational corporations are subjected to the same self-censorship regulations as Chinese companies, several U.S. corporations have entered the Chinese market since China’s Great Firewall was erected, and many others, notably the social-networking giant Facebook, are looking to follow suit. These companies rightfully contend that they must comply with Chinese laws when while operating the Chinese market, even if this violates U.S. standards of freedom of speech, or foreign perceptions how China should govern its own citizens. Furthermore, to justify their foray into or stronghold in the profitable Chinese market, they often argue that some information is better than none at all—that only by respecting the Chinese government’s demands can they bring more quality information into the average Chinese citizen’s reach .
In this article we examine the case studies of Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Google to understand corporations’ motivation and general approach when entering China. We will next look into the U.S. government’s reaction and attempted regulations. Finally, we will touch on some recommendations for more effective regulation in the future.
Yahoo! was the first major U.S. Internet company to enter the Chinese market, rolling out a Chinese language search engine and a Beijing office in 1999. Three years later, in 2002, it signed the “Public Pledge for Self-Discipline and Professional Ethics for Chinese Internet Industry,” “which requires Yahoo! to “carry forward the rich cultural tradition of the Chinese nation and the ethical norms of the socialist cultural civilization,” to protect China’s state security, and refrain from publishing information that may disrupt social stability. Yahoo! remains to this date the only western company known to have signed the pledge .
Under this pledge, Yahoo! provided the Chinese government with user information that eventually led to the arrest and conviction of journalist Shi Tao in April 2005, when he used his Yahoo! email account to send communications to a pro-democracy website abroad. Many cases of a similar nature, though perhaps less severe, have been reported since .
Microsoft joined Yahoo! in China when it launched MSN China in 2005, and censored as requested by the Chinese government. Though Microsoft endured attacks from the very beginning for censoring, its most notable crisis occurred when it shut down Zhao Jing’s blog on MSN Spaces—Microsoft’s blogging platform. Zhao Jing, who also wrote under the pseudonym Michael Anti, was one of China’s most read, out-spoken bloggers at the time. Angry responses broke out in the west, and Microsoft’s own in-house blogger Robert Scoble offered to lend Michael Anti his own site: “Guys over at MSN: sorry, I don’t agree with your being used as a state-run thug,” he said. “It’s one thing to pull a list of words out of a blog using an algorithm. It’s another thing to become an agent of a government and censor an entire blogger’s work,” wrote Scoble in his correspondence with CNN’s Rebecca Mackinnon .
Due to the heavy criticism, in January 2006 Microsoft altered its blog censorship policy in China, committing only to “remov[ing] access to blog content when it receives a legally binding notice from the government indicating that the material violates local laws” . In addition, Microsoft stated that it would remove said content only in the relevant country issuing the notice, and promised to inform users why specific content is blocked. Today Microsoft supports a call for action to loosen information control in China.
The launch of google.cn marked Google’s official entry into the Chinese market in January 2006. Unlike Yahoo! and Microsoft, Google spent a public year “soul-searching” before the launch, and from the very beginning claimed that it did not plan to disclose to the government any information on those who search for blocked content. Google was also the first and only to promise to inform users that certain searched content has been restricted under governmental regulation . Still many considered Google’s actions a dark contradiction to its famous “Don’t Be Evil” motto. Even more ironically, how can Google agree to China’s demands of censorship when it denies the U.S. government access to similar user information? Google’s Chinese site remained under criticism, and many Internet users took it upon themselves to inform others of Google’s “evil.” This YouTube video, for example, compared search results for “Tiananmen Massacre” on Google UK and Google China, sparking a flurry of crude yet often relevant responses from other YouTube users.
The struggle continued until January 12, 2010, when several of Google’s servers were apparently hacked to access information on Chinese dissidents. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China independently confirmed “eight cases in which journalists based in China and Taiwan had their accounts hacked in recent weeks.”. Google then announced plans to negotiation an unfiltered search engine with China. When negotiations failed in March 2010, Google automatically redirected all of google.cn search traffic to google.hk, which is based in Hong Kong and thereby no longer under Chinese jurisdiction . Not much changed, however, as the Chinese government quickly moved to block user access to google.cn, and the firewall continued to filter results when Chinese users search through google.hk. google.cn still redirects to google.com.hk today.
The U.S. is a huge technology hub, and as many of the Internet/technology corporations in China today are U.S. based, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft being prominent examples. Given this background, and give the public response to Google’s Yahoo!, and Microsoft’s behavior in China, the U.S. government takes a natural interest in U.S. corporate accountability in the Chinese market. In 2006, the U.S. House of Representatives held a joint committee at which representatives from top U.S. companies must testify about their business practices in China. Soon after, Republican Rep. Christopher Smith proposed the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006, and later the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007 . These acts hope to promote freedom by prohibiting U.S. companies from censorship. Idealistic as they are, they did not pass: imposing U.S. ideologies and regulations upon companies in foreign land seemed neither appropriate nor effective.
Into the Future
Given the multinational nature of many large companies today, no nation’s regulation will suffice to ensure freedom to the entire Internet. Either an international regulatory agency must take on this burden, or we must create an industry-wide standard of conduct to navigate different governments and ideologies. The latter, more flexible and easier to achieve, may be an effective stepping-stone towards the former, more official code conduct.