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Prime Time For Collective Action

The technology sector is notoriously competitive, as evidenced by 1) Microscopic cell phones that cost four dollars and 2) The fact that it has its very own gossip blog. It isn’t the place one would expect to see industrial collective action, but it is the one place where collective action could lead not only to larger future returns but the liberation of a billion people, all potential customers.

Yes, I said ‘a billion,’ so I must be talking about China Syndrome: the unfortunate penchant of American technology companies—all of whom exist because a liberal democratic government took an invention of its military and opened it up to unquestioned, unregulated private innovation—to sacrifice life, limb, and information integrity in order to billow the People’s Republic anti-people agenda, which revolves around ensuring that phrases like ‘Tiananmen Masscre’ and ‘human rights violations’ never cross the border, at least in 0010100 form. The House of Representatives takes up the issue today.

Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, in their various ways and through their various means, have doffed their hat to the Chinese security specialists, whose charge it is to control what the public may know of the outside world and to prosecute political dissidents. As you already know, Yahoo in particular has played what appears to be the decisive role of whistleblower, twice allowing, by giving up crucial information, the Communists to convict pro-democracy rebels who operated from within China over the Internet. Google, despite protestations to the contrary, is similarly evil. It once attempted to explain away its obedience to a regime inimical to liberty by claiming: “We are convinced that the Internet, and its continued development through the efforts of companies like Google, will effectively contribute to openness and prosperity in the world. Our continued engagement with China is the best (perhaps only) way for Google to help bring the tremendous benefits of universal information access to all our users there.”

If you weren’t able to understand that through the juris doctorate filter, Google thinks that only by providing stunted and controlled information will the Chinese people realize that they should not accept stunted and controlled information. Google forgets, or ignores, that the Chinese have lived with censorship since fiber first lit their nation, and falling in with the standard regimen of control is the best way to reinforce it, not to break free of it.

In World War II, Smith and Wesson did not produce weapons for the German Schutzstaffel, even though it could have made lots of money by providing an alternative to the tricky Luger. That was swell of them to do, and most Americans appreciated it. In the twenty-first century, we are as advocatory of free markets as we were in ‘45 but, again, we expect and appreciate that IBM refuses to sell its premier data encryption technologies outside of United States borders. We support business freedom all the way to that rarely-reached point where it becomes deleterious to the broad national interests of the United States of America.

What can America’s information technology companies do to help ensure that an already-powerful dangerous regime does not become even more powerful by oppressing its citizens using our tools? They can make a pact.

Alone, each company is a single player in a race to the bottom. They understand that Beijing controls all and so they submit to control by Beijing: the search engine quickest on the ‘Yessir’ draw gets in the good graces of the Communist elites. So Microsoft deletes blogs at its whim, Google cleanses history of events that the PRC doesn’t like, and Yahoo betrays the personal details of dissidents who communicate online through its service. Our internet companies are in a bad way: Any competition will be competition towards a sorrier state of affairs for the Chinese people and a more-steeled fist for the government.

What we forget too often is that blood is already in the water. The Chinese people know about Google, about Microsoft, and about Yahoo. They know that in America any piece of information, whether it defames or glorifies the government, can be had in mere moments. And they want Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo’s products, because they know it is used everywhere outside their borders. There is no acceptable alternative from the PRC. Our technology companies can hardly expect to foment demand for greater freedom by providing less of it. If they band together and have no presence at all in China, the Chinese people will understand fully why, and they will be so thoroughly and wrenchingly deneid crucial services upon which so much of the world economy turns, that they may be more likely to, finally, demand more freedom.

Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have all found ways to grow both in the United States and elsewhere, and their online services, if they collude, face no serious competitors elsewhere that would threaten to steal away market share while the American trio waits on the sideline, doing the right thing. Collusion in staying out of Beijing—and I write here only of the companies’ broad-based information services, not standardized products like operating systems and word processors—would temporarily stunt the growth of those companies, but no opportunities would be forever lost. Indeed, if the gambit proves in any way successful (and any minute success is better than the current state of affairs) the companies will, at a later date, face a Chinese market with fewer restrictions, making them more able to innovate.

UPDATE: Rebecca MacKinnon was at the D.C. hearings today and her blog has recapitulations of the various companies’ testimony. She also reports on seemingly misguided legislation that Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) is slated to introduce tomorrow, which would “prohibit any United States businesses from cooperating with officials of Internet-restricting countries in effecting the political censorship of online content.”

TigerHawk doesn’t like this, although, to be fair, it doesn’t keep technology companies out of China. (That would be wrong.) It only prohibits companies from doing business in ways which aid Chinese oppression. Since we already apply that standard to internet content companies as regards the United States government, where is the harm in applying it to China?

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