Freedom of expression, a simple idea with complicated implications, is at the center of two major international battles right now. The first, prompted by the publication in Europe of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, fell into the well-worn rift between the Muslim world—which views the drawings as blasphemous—and the liberal democracies, which protect free speech even when it is insulting.
The second fight is over the willingness of U.S. software firms to help China create "censored" versions of their Internet search engines. The issue—outlined in this CFR Background Q&A by cfr.org's Robert McMahon—was subject to February 15 hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives. The basic question: whether the desire of firms like Microsoft, Google, Cisco, and Yahoo to tap into the lucrative China market outweighs America's oft-stated national interest in fostering democracy in the world's most populous nation (CNN).
Lawmakers from both parties made it clear they feel it does not. One senior Democrat, Tom Lantos of California, termed the U.S. firms' practices a disgrace (AP).
Neither China nor the software giants would frame the issue that way. For China, abiding by tough laws that restrict free speech—explained in this CFR Background Q&A—is the price of doing business there. China says its censorship is mostly about things like pornography (China Daily), though much evidence suggests otherwise. China's censorship policies, and the motives behind them, are further explored in this recent report from the Congressional Research Service.
The U.S. companies offer a more complicated rationale. Echoing the arguments of American firms that did business in South Africa in the 1980s, they say their software does far more good than harm by delivering information otherwise unavailable. Google's co-founder, Sergey Brin, says this argument won him over in spite of his own experiences as a boy in the Soviet Union. In an interview with Fortune magazine, Brin reasoned even restricted access to Google "will be better for the Chinese Web users, because ultimately they would get more information, though not quite all of it."
Yahoo and Microsoft offer similar arguments. Yahoo has gone a step further, though, deciding to sell a majority share of its servers in China to local control (CSMonitor), theoretically putting its practices out of U.S. jurisdiction.
On Tuesday, the State Department, responding to a request from the software makers, announced creation of a task force to examine problems posed by repressive regimes (TechWeb News) to Internet commerce and speech.
Why all the fuss? Beyond matters of pure principle, not always a pivotal factor in competitive corporate decision making, there is a human cost. Reporters Without Borders, an international media watchdog, says over eighty Chinese dissidents are in jail, due in part to information Yahoo's Chinese subsidiary turned over the authorities there.
For all this, China's efforts—and U.S. corporate complicity—may ultimately fail to control the exchange of ideas. Bloggers, dissidents, and journalists often find what they want on the Internet in spite of all the censors (Guardian).