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Would You Send Your Mom To Jail To Make Money?

In a conference room at my office there's a giant photo of a lone Chinese man standing in front of a row of tanks. It's the classic photo from Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989, when 100,000 brave students peacefully assembled to protest the corrupt and repressive Chinese government. For their heroic actions many were crushed by tanks, beaten by soldiers, or jailed,

Tiananmen Square
June 4th, 1989

and some of the protest's organizers were forced to flee their homeland forever.

Sixteen years later, one can hardly pick up a business magazine without seeing a screaming headline about the importance of China. With 20% of all earth's inhabitants and a migration from communism to capitalism China is a tantalizing opportunity for virtually any corporation. What's rarely mentioned is that the brutal regime still in power continues to jail people for exercising even the most basic of liberties we take for granted in Western society.

Recently, technology companies who have opened shops for business in China are confronted with an ethical dilemma. In a quest for growth and profits, how much do they kowtow to the Chinese government, which tramples human rights and demands corporations to assist in continued crackdowns of freedom?

All the major search engines have given in to Chinese demands to throttle liberty in exchange for access to the Chinese market. Google has removed news listing from its popular news search to publications critical of Chinese policy such as Epoch Times, Voice of America and a dozen other publications. Microsoft has blocked users of its MSN site from using the terms "freedom," "democracy" and other concepts China has designated as "dangerous."

The argument in favor of corporate self-censorship is that the massive amount of information NOT filtered is slowly informing the Chinese populace about freedom, which is another way of saying that the good outweighs the bad. There may be truth in this, but at the same time it's clear that the Communist oligarchy believes that they can extend their control of their populace with the cooperation of American businesses into the digital age.

Most disconcerting are recent reports that Yahoo!'s Hong Kong operation is turning over emails which helped convict a reporter. Journalist Shi Tao was jailed and sentenced to 10 years in prison for "illegally sending state secrets abroad." The secrets that he revealed were information his newspaper received from the state propaganda department about how they could cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He was identified because he had used Yahoo!'s free email service for which Yahoo! turned over log files to authorities that were later tracked back to his computer.

It's easy to brush off the matter as an unfortunate incident that happens in a corrupt government on the other side of the globe. After all, Yahoo! has to respond to court orders in China just as my companies would have to respond to court orders served on them in the United States. In addition, they have obligations to their shareholders to grow the company, not battle against government policies they might disagree with. It's possible that Yahoo! did not know why the government was requesting the information or understand the implications of their participation. And maybe Yahoo!'s employees were even threatened themselves with jail if they did not comply.

Still, I wonder how they would react if the court order was for information to identify their Mom instead of a faceless Chinese citizen? If their mother was at the center of the controversy and risked a decade-long sentence in a Chinese prison where torture and hard labor are not uncommon, would they willingly provide the information?

It's one thing to engage in self-censorship, preventing someone from discussing "freedom" and "human rights" or blocking news sources. In those instances nobody goes to prison. Nobody is tortured. Nobody is physically harmed. It's an entirely different level to actively participate in turning over information which leads to jailing of citizens for the most basic freedom of press issues. It makes me wonder where the moral lines are when chasing a dollar. Would those companies turn over information that leads to executions for those that violate freedom of speech?

With the secrecy shrouding the Chinese government, it's likely other companies have been forced to take similar actions. Yahoo! is in the unfortunate position of being the first Internet company to be publicly outed when they've cooperated with the Chinese in such a manner. Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft may act like they are powerless in this situation, bound by the laws of the countries they operate in, but that's ridiculous. Surely they recognize the power they have in going public with this information - the power to reach the media, influence their users and bring diplomatic and political pressure on China. It's no secret that as the host of 2008 Olympics in Beijing they are sensitive to public perception and scrutiny.

For Shi Tao's sake, I hope we have not heard the final chapter of this story. I hope that Yahoo! is working behind the scenes to see that Mr. Tao does not spend the next decade in prison for sending an email message. It's important for Yahoo! to come out publicly as well and say they strongly oppose the Chinese government's actions and remind people of the basic liberties Chinese are still deprived of.

It's even more important for the next Shi Tao. I hope he or she will have confidence that while American companies may be forced to cooperate in situations in which they do not agree, they do so under both public and private protest. I'm not naive enough to think that speaking out against the Chinese government won't possibly provoke retaliation. It is rarely convenient to do the right thing. But I hope Americans, from the safety and freedom afforded us in the United States, will muster a tiny fraction of the courage of the man in front of the tanks and speak out.


-- Michael
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