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Great Firewall of China

Brick by brick, Beijing's barrier to free speech will erode, but it's high time we all helped that happen

Key words: freedom, democracy, Taiwan independence. Counterproductive, grandstanding, baloney. The first few key words are just a test to see if I'll be able to read this story when I head to China next month. I'll search for it on Yahoo! and Google to see if they are fulfilling their promise to the Chinese government to filter out "politically sensitive" material.

The last few words reflect my gut feeling about the political chatter last week concerning whether a few American companies are trampling freedom of expression by censoring their search engines in China. Of course they are. And that stinks. In a perfect world, it wouldn't happen that way. But for realists, I suppose, the Great Firewall of China isn't likely to come tumbling down overnight.

Instead, it will erode, and be weakened one brick at a time, until it is largely useless. Part of that will be done from the inside, by tech-savvy users who know the workarounds--and there are plenty of them. Some will come from outside, from guys like North Carolina's Bill Xia, who years ago created Freegate, a Chinese-language software program that uses proxy servers assigned to changeable Internet addresses, allowing Chinese to surf wherever they want. There are others, too, such as Circumventor, or a forthcoming anti-censorship program being crafted by the firm Anonymizer.

There is little doubt in my mind that Yahoo! made an appalling error by turning over information that allowed the Chinese police to track down and imprison dissidents Shi Tao and Li Zhi. Yahoo! defended itself by saying it was simply following local law. "But this argument no longer holds water," according to Reporters Without Borders. "The firm says it simply responds to requests from the authorities for data without ever knowing what it will be used for. Yahoo! certainly knew it was helping to arrest political dissidents and journalists, not just ordinary criminals."

Can't disagree with that. Yahoo! ought to change its policies to address this, and no doubt should have done it sooner. Its feigned ignorance is unforgivable. Microsoft's gaffe in pulling down a Chinese blog on a U.S. server is also shameful. Same goes for Cisco, if it proves true that it helped craft the so-called Policenet, a software cyberspy that supposedly monitors Chinese Web users, who at roughly 110 million are second only to surfers in the United States in number.

Such a large user group deserves more than it's getting. For sure, it won't come from the Chinese authorities anytime soon. But I'm not sure the United States can help either. I wasn't put at ease by the rhetoric at last week's hearing on Capitol Hill. For politicians in Washington to suggest that Yahoo!, Google, MSN and Cisco are equivalent to Nazi collaborators is a stretch, and doesn't do much to drum up a solution. (Moreover, the timing is puzzling, considering that Reporters Without Borders has, for years, been informing Washington that American companies were being forced to make uncomfortable--and possibly unethical--compromises to win greater access to the Chinese market.)

Little by little, progress is being made in China, because even the best efforts to tame the Internet fail. Thankfully, Chinese users can still access Google's uncensored (but limited) English and Chinese versions that reside on servers outside the country, so not all is lost.

But vigilance is needed. Google's slip, along with that of its peers, means that on Google.cn, it's not only the excluded hits that one should worry about, but the included hits, which might only show Tiananmen Square as a tourist haven and not the battleground that it was in 1989.

There are growing indications within China that the Chinese are fed up. I'm not saying this has reached critical mass by any stretch, but it's nonetheless encouraging. For instance, in early February, a handful of senior, albeit fringe, Communist Party members, including the former head of the Propaganda Department and a former secretary to Mao Zedong, wrote an open letter critical of the level of censorship in China.

It came in response to the government's closing a local news magazine known for muckraking. Now there's a chance that the magazine may reopen. Let's hope so. If not, we can take some comfort from the trend that more and more newspapers and magazines in China are pushing Beijing's idea of all the news that's fit to print.

Hopefully, the debate on Capitol Hill will result in executable strategies or concrete legislation that will see the U.S. government ratchet up pressure on China. Industry should not have to go it alone.

When China wanted to implement a homegrown wireless standard that discriminated against American firms, the U.S. government worked closely with the tech industry to get China to back off. I know it's not an apples-to-oranges comparison, but we need another double-team, to impress upon China's leaders--and other autocratic regimes--that they should respect freedom of expression, on the Internet and anywhere else. Such cooperation may help ensure that U.S. companies don't have to choose between building a business and betraying dissidents like Shi Tao and Li Zhi.

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