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WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE?
Magpie is a former journalist, attempted historian [No, you can't ask how her thesis is going], and full-time corvid of the lesbian persuasion. She keeps herself in birdseed by writing those bad computer manuals that you toss out without bothering to read them. She also blogs too much when she's not on deadline, both here and at Pacific Views.

Magpie roosts in Portland, Oregon, where she annoys her housemates (as well as her cats Medea, Whiskers, and Jane Doe) by attempting to play Irish music on the fiddle and concertina.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

There's no way to avoid being censors.

That's pretty much the argument that a number of US-based internet and networking companies have been making about doing business in China.

The more detailed version of the argument goes like this: China is the biggest single market in the world, and it will within a few years have more internet users than any other country — including the US. In order to survive and prosper, US-based companies need to be major players in the Chinese market. The Chinese government requires media and internet technology companies to comply with its strict policies on what information can and can't be disseminated over the internet. Therefore, US companies must help the Chinese government implement and enforce its censorship policies in order to be players in the Chinese market.


AOL's China Portal

AOL's new Chinese-language website


Many major US internet players are doing business in China, and a number of them have recently garnered unpleasant publicity for their part in aiding the Chinese government in quashing free speech:
  • Microsoft has shut down blogs critical of the Chinese government.
  • Google has set up a censored version of its site for China.
  • Cisco Systems has provided the hardware infrastructure used by China's police and security forces to conduct surveillance of internet users.
  • Yahoo allegedly provided Chinese authorities with info they used to arrest the author of an anti-government website.

The rationale usually given by these countries is that their presence in China can be used to help move the Chinese government toward less restrictive policies regarding the internet and free speech in general — a claim that many observers, including this Magpie, find naive at best.

One major US internet company may be taking a different route. With little publicity, AOL went live earlier this week with an uncensored Chinese-language version of its internet portal. Although AOL says that the new site is aimed at Chinese Americans, it's [at least so far] easily accessible from the Chinese mainland.

I'm certainly not an expert on Chinese censorship or internet usage, so I immediately went to Rebecca MacKinnon's excellent blog RConversation to see what she thinks of the new AOL portal:

I can confirm: the search engine on this portal is uncensored. Searches for "Falun Gong" and "Tiananmen Square Massacre" turn up the full range of results from dissident and human rights websites. I can also report that according to my friends in China, so far the AOL Chinese portal is not blocked from within the People's Republic....

The timing of AOL's release is pretty interesting — one wonders if they are launching the portal now to gain maximum praise for not censoring at a time when their competitors are in the censorship doghouse. It will be very interesting to see how much traffic they end up getting from mainland China despite their claims that mainland Chinese are not the target users.

One is also reminded that AOL has in the past opted not to get into the Chinese censorship business. [You'll find the info in the comments for the post. — Magpie]

Companies have choices. Despite what they may claim.

And one of the choices that AOL had, as MacKinnon points out, is introducing its Chinese site at a time when many of its rivals are in the hot seat for the way that they operate in China.

There's more on AOL's China Portal in this USA Today article.

| | Posted by Magpie at 12:01 AM | Get permalink




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