Apple-pie protest

Nice, properly barbed, piece by Tom Zeller in the New York Times about the way US technology companies are caving in to the Chinese government’s repressive demands.

Western technology companies have only themselves to blame if users in the free world quickly ask when Shi Tao, the journalist whose name Yahoo gave to Chinese authorities and who subsequently was sentenced to a 10-year prison term, will be released. Or that people use what-ifs to ponder the moral limits of saying that local law is local law.

That’s partly because it is only recently that any of the players have made any genuine efforts at transparency in their dealings with China.

Two weeks ago, Google took the bold step of plainly admitting that it was entering the Chinese market with a censored search product, tweaked according to government specifications. Then last week, Microsoft announced new policies that would enable it to honor a government’s demand to shut down a citizen’s blog (as happened five weeks ago with a popular MSN blogger in Beijing) while still keeping the blog visible outside of China.

But these are small victories, said Julien Pain of the group Reporters Without Borders, which tracks Internet censorship in China, not least because the companies “seem now to accept censorship as a given, and have simply decided to be transparent about it.”

Still, to many, it signaled progress.

And yet all four American companies with P.R. baggage in China — Cisco, Yahoo, Microsoft and now Google — were no-shows at a hearing last Wednesday of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. At least three of the companies submitted written statements defending their activities in China, but their absence only added to their image problem, as headlines like “Tech Firms Snub Feds” and “Google Stiffs Congressional Caucus” bounced around the blogosphere.

Later in the piece, Zeller ponders the question of whether Google in particular might pay a price (in the West) for its capitulation.

IceRocket is one of several search alternatives listed at, which is run by a group called Students for a Free Tibet., a search site developed by several Carnegie Mellon computer scientists, is another. Clusty proudly states that it “never censors search results” or excludes material “that would be objectionable to governments or would be unlawful in unelected, nondemocratic regimes.”

In an e-mail message, Mark Cuban, IceRocket’s founder, put it more bluntly: “IceRocket doesn’t and won’t censor. We index more than one million Chinese-language blogs. No chance we censor or block anything in this lifetime.”

Even David Pinto, who owns the popular — and wholly apolitical — site, has ceased taking income from Google ads. “I was no longer comfortable taking money from them,” he said. That’s the sort of apple-pie protest that American companies can’t ignore.

The House of Representatives Subcommittee on Global Human Rights is going to hold hearings on this interesting topic on February 15. Google & Co will have to show up for this because the commitee has the power to subpoena them.