Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Harmony in Chinese Internet and corporate behavior

Reporting live from IGF 2007 as blogged on ISOC's Blog on IGF:

Those who may expect a repeat of the controversial statements made by Chinese officials in IGF last year in Athens would be disappointed. The forum organized by the Internet Society of China this year in Rio has been straight-forward and lacking in fire and arguments.

Representatives of the host made their presentations in Chinese, with intrepretation (but not simultaneous), which took up a lot of time, and the session was scheduled at the end of the first day, crashing with the beer and food outside in the host’s reception. But to be fair, the presentations were well-delivered with a lot of facts and stats, though in a dry, typical mainland Chinese manner. But to the uninitiated about the state of the Internet in China, it would still be very informative and useful.

This “tactic” worked such that most of the ensuing discussions from the audience focused on the anti-spam and anti-phishing initiatives, and how the international community can cooperate. Only Mark Bench of World Press Freedom Committee queried about Internet censorship in China, but the speakers took the “party line” (no pun intended) that as an NGO, ISC cannot speak for the Government.

But credits to the host for admitting openly that China can use the Internet to improve human rights.” This is what we face all the time in Hong Kong – how to engage and help China become a more responsible part of the international community, and how to make the rest of the world understand China more, This is not easy, especially when we have to tackle controversial and often political issues, and we have to make sure we hold on to our core values.

In fact, in China, “harmony” has become a code word by bloggers for “censorship” — “being harmonized” means “being censored” or banned on the Internet. But the very fact that bloggers are able to joke about their situation like this and play cat-and-mouse with the censors mean that indeed they do manage to make room for themselves.

But it should be remembered that China is the single country in the world with the most number of Internet-specific regulations at all levels and from numerous ministries or areas of governance. Control is legalized and made into the system. So to some, all these anti-spam and secure Internet initiatives are there for good reasons.

In other sessions I went to about human rights and free speech on the Internet, Robert Boorstin of Google repeatedly cited their corporate decision not to provide their Gmail and Blogger services in China, so that they would not be in the predicament of Yahoo! as in the Shi Tao case. This is one way to do it, but certainly not perfect, for instance, Google search in China is still filtered “according to Chinese law.”

A unified industry solution is a good idea, but not easy to define, and be agreed by all, and most importantly, a worry is that such initiatives will only end up to “benefit” the industry by letting them off the hook, but cases like Shi Tao’s will not end up differently when in the end, companies have to “abide by local laws.”

I certainly do not advocate and am plainly against dis-engagement, or divestment as some people propose. China, again as an example, is much better off, much freer, and people have access to much more information now, with the Internet, and with these foreign companies operating in China. In the end, I remain faithful that with the Internet we are down on a one-way street of more openness and democracy with no turning back, for any country and people.

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