06 January 2006

Microsoft just shut down the blog of a Chinese journalist who had the temerity to say that some people working at a newspaper might be fired as a result of a strike. This comes on the heels of Yahoo helping the Chinese government find and arrest a dissident through his Yahoo e-mail address. Cisco has also come under fire for helping crack down on dissidents.

I think pretty much everyone in America finds this sort of thing abhorrent. The excuses that Microsoft and Yahoo have given basically say: we don't like those laws, but we have to play by them if we're going to do business there.

I read somewhere that the U.S. Congress could take that excuse away by imposing civil or criminal penalties on companies doing business here that help foreign governments crack down on free speech. That sounds like a good idea to me, but the IT companies might talk about pulling out of China if they were guaranteed to face sanctions from one government or the other.

Would a pullout really happen? Could China, in 2006, plausibly kick Microsoft out of the country? Could Microsoft pull up its roots and leave town? I don't know enough about China's internet situation or about the internet in general to give a really informed answer, but it seems to me that the Chinese economy would be crippled if Microsoft or Cisco decided that it would cease all operations in the country. I think these companies are so integral to the way the internet works that they have a lot of bargaining power here, and if push came to shove, the Chinese government would make sure they stayed in the country.

A second issue: If we're going to force Microsoft to disobey Chinese laws we find abhorrent, though, how do we figure out which laws they should follow and which laws they shouldn't? We might imagine that some foreign countries wouldn't want Microsoft to comply with U.S. laws that they find abhorrent. For example, what if Microsoft helped U.S. authorities locate an internet stalker who might face the death penalty? We can imagine that the E.U. might not want this person to be executed, and they might try to pressure transnational companies into not cooperating with capital crimes investigations.

Or to take a simpler example, would we still expect IT companies to participate in domestic terrorism investigations? Can we distinguish between a Chinese sedition law and a domestic terrorism law in a way that makes sense to IT companies? We certainly can if we make value judgments about the governments in question, but I don't think we want to force IT companies to decide on which laws to follow based upon a subjective (American) view of the legitimacy of who made the laws. Then they're just arms of American diplomacy. It might be possible to come up with a set of norms on cooperation of IT companies (like the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights) that a large majority of countries believes is acceptable.

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