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The Weekly Standard: Who Lost China's Internet? (Part 2)

April 25, 2002 |   by Ethan Gutmann


Continued from http://clearwisdom.net/emh/articles/2002/4/24/21290.html

Enter Yahoo! The business press has painted a picture of a thriving, home-grown Chinese market for portals and search engines--mirroring such companies as AOL, Google, and Excite--with names like Sohu, Netease, and Sina fighting for the top spots. Chinese Yahoo!, the American outrider, trails in fifth place. A top Yahoo! representative spoke to me on the condition that I would not use his name or give identifying details other than that he had recently left the company. He admitted that Yahoo! is actually the most popular portal in China by a mile. Management had fudged the hit rate, because "we were viewed as extremely aggressive. We were seen as too foreign."

Chinese xenophobia has led many other U.S. companies to play similar games, but Yahoo! was particularly eager to please. All Chinese chat rooms or discussion groups have a "big mama," a supervisor for a team of censors who wipe out politically incorrect comments in real time. Yahoo! handles things differently. If in the midst of a discussion you type, "We should have nationwide multiparty elections in China!!" no one else will react to your comment. How could they? It appears on your screen, but only you and Yahoo!'s big mama actually see your thought crime. After intercepting it and preventing its transmission, Mother Yahoo! then solicitously generates a friendly e-mail suggesting that you cool your rhetoric--censorship, but with a New Age nod to self-esteem.

The former Yahoo! rep also admitted that the search phrase "Taiwan independence" on Chinese Yahoo! would yield no results, because Yahoo! has disabled searches for select keywords, such as "Falun Gong" and "China democracy." Search for VIP Reference, a major overseas Chinese dissident site, and you will get a single hit, a government site ripping it to shreds. How did Yahoo! come up with these policies? He replied, "It was a precautionary measure. The State Information Bureau was in charge of watching and making sure that we complied. The game is to make sure that they don't complain." By this logic, when Yahoo! rejected an attempt by Voice of America to buy ad space, they were just helping the Internet function smoothly. The former rep defended such censorship: "We are not a content creator, just a medium, a selective medium." But it is a critical medium. The Chinese government uses it to wage political campaigns against Taiwan, Tibet, and America. And of course the great promise of the Internet in China was supposed to be that it was unfettered, not selective. The Yahoo! rep again: "You adjust. The crackdowns come in waves; it's just the issue du jour. It's normal."

But what is "normal" in China can be altered under duress. When Chinese authorities ordered Microsoft to surrender its software's underlying source codes--the keys to encryption--as the price of doing business there, Microsoft chose to fight, spearheading an unprecedented Beijing-based coalition of American, Japanese, and European Chambers of Commerce. Faced with being left behind technologically, the Chinese authorities dropped their demands. Theoretically, China's desire to be part of the Internet should have given the capitalists who wired it similar leverage. Instead, the leverage all seems to have remained with the government, as Western companies fell all over themselves bidding for its favor. AOL, Netscape Communications, and Sun Microsystems all helped disseminate government propaganda by backing the China Internet Corporation, an arm of the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Not to be outdone, Sparkice, a Canadian Internet colossus, splashily announced that it would serve up only state-sanctioned news on its website. Nortel provides software for voice and closed-circuit camera recognition--technology that the Public Security Bureau has already put to good use, according to the Chinese press. AOL is quietly weighing the pros and cons of informing on dissidents if the Public Security Bureau so requests; the right decision would clearly speed Chinese approval for AOL to offer Internet services and perhaps get a foothold in the Chinese television market. In fact, AOL signed a landmark deal with a Chinese station at the end of October. Smaller American companies and smaller nations smell the blood. Along with Chinese officials, they dominate Chinese Internet-security trade shows. China Telecom is considering purchasing software from iCognito, an Israeli company that invented a program called "artificial content recognition," which surfs along just ahead of you, learning as it censors in real time. It was built to filter "gambling, shopping, job search, pornography, stock quotes, or other non-business material," but the first question from the Chinese buyers is invariably: Can it stop Falun Gong?

In the wake of terrorist attacks on America, some of the byplay between Beijing and its entrepreneurial suitors has taken on new significance. According to James Mulvenon of Rand Corporation, Network Associates, a U.S. web security firm, gained entry to the Chinese market by helpfully donating 300 live computer viruses to the Public Security Bureau. The U.S. embassy has already monitored the picture.exe virus, which worms into a user's computer and then quietly sabotages the widely available encryption software Pretty Good Privacy by sending the personal encryption keys to China. Last August's notorious Code Red worm, which some thought originated in China, appears to have been little more than an amateur nuisance. But Chinese military reports on unconventional warfare explicitly advocate coordinated virus attacks to debilitate U.S. communication and financial systems during a crisis. America may expect a more sophisticated visit from the offspring of a Network Associates sample virus in the future.

(to be continued)