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America's most popular Internet companies are helping China crack down on free speech.

Published December 16, 2005 11:31AM (EST)

About once a month executives from China's Internet news sites gather in a small meeting room on the first floor of Beijing's Information Office, where a government official tells them what not to report. China's Internet giants all send representatives, as does the China branch of one of America's best-known icons: Yahoo. The visitors take notes and ask few questions.

On especially sensitive days, the speaker is the office's director, Wang Hui, a woman whom an attendee of the meetings describes as pleasant and informal, with her hair cut short in the classic style of a Chinese bureaucrat. "Her demeanor is friendly," says the attendee, who requested anonymity because describing the meetings could lead to arrest. "We have known each other for a long time, and our companies are very cooperative."

The meetings are part of a system of Internet censorship that combines technological filters, human monitors and threats of detention to systematically suppress political speech. With more than 100 million regular Internet users, China is second only to the United States in terms of potential customers. But the Chinese government holds Web sites responsible for the content they and their users provide. Although much of the censorship gets carried out by the state, the authorities also rely heavily on the private sector.

To conduct business in China, popular Internet companies Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have had to accommodate a regime that forbids free speech, bars political parties and jails journalists. This means filtering searches on their sites, censoring news and providing evidence in the trials of political dissidents -- or risk having their sites blocked in China. Forced to choose between ignoring the world's hottest market or implicitly endorsing a system of censorship that a recent Harvard study called "the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world," the companies have decided to cooperate.

"Business is business," Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba.com, which controls Yahoo China, told the Financial Times. "It's not politics."

But these corporations are not simply doing business in China, they are patching the only chink in the censors' armor: China's international reputation. The country that will host the 2008 Olympics cares about its image. The 1980s boycott of South Africa hurt the apartheid regime as much by denying it respectability as by punishing its economy.

In China, the private sector -- specifically foreign companies -- plays the opposite role. There's a difference between assembling cars or manufacturing microchips in a repressive state and participating in repression. The first can be excused as engagement. The second endorses the practice. By cooperating with the censors, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo blunt free-speech activists' only remaining weapon.

The Chinese government's "Great Firewall" blocks access to whole domains such as Human Rights Watch, the Taiwanese government's home page, and BBC's news site. Algorithms also screen for keywords. Sites that repeatedly mention the spiritual movement Falun Gong, for instance, are blocked. The Harvard study found that 90 of the top 100 Chinese-language Google results for "Tiananmen Massacre" and 93 of the top 100 for "Chinese Labor Party" were inaccessible from within China. In other countries, a censored site is usually labeled as such. In China, the pages simply fail to load. Too many keyword hits and the user's access shuts down completely.

The technically savvy can always find ways around the filters. Proxy servers slip through China's gateways and posters use homonyms or slide extra characters into sensitive words. But the government accepts the leakage as long as it can squelch the loudest voices.

That approach can be seen in a 2004 sentencing law cracking down on Internet pornography, which is illegal in China. The law judges the seriousness of the offense not on a site's content but on its popularity. A Web master receiving more than 250,000 visitors might face life imprisonment. "The way to think about it is that they want to cap people's influence," says Jeremy Goldkorn, whose blog Danwei reported on the law.

China keeps its laws against political expression a secret. But those making too big a splash on the Web can expect a threatening phone call or have their site shut down. Persistence leads to the loss of a job or to arrest. According to Reporters Without Borders, China has at least 62 Internet dissidents behind bars, more than any other country. Intimidation stops what the filters miss.

Of four Chinese bloggers contacted for this article, two dodged the interview entirely and one agreed, with a caveat: He wouldn't talk politics. The fourth, Michael Anti, who as a researcher for the New York Times enjoys a modicum of protection, recently lost access to his blog when the Chinese government blocked the U.K.-based platform where he posted it. His name, he thinks, has also been filtered. "If I Google my name in Chinese, my Internet access will shut down at once," Anti said.

The bulk of Chinese censorship is self-censorship. But the government also relies on the private sector to police the Internet. Fang Xingdong, who runs Bokee, China's largest blog platform, says his company uses a list of keywords to catch illicit postings. Fang declined to list his company's keywords, but a Chinese hack of another tech company's list found 1,041 words ranging from "corruption," "democracy" and "insurrection" to "high-ranking cadre's children," "Tibetan Independence" and the names of China's leaders.

Ten of Fang's nearly 400 employees are tasked with trolling for what the filters have missed. "It's not as serious of a [technical] challenge as people think," he says. For most of Bokee's blogs, the audience is small and the author can be held accountable, so fewer than one in 500 postings needs to be deleted. On bulletin boards, which are anonymous and reach a larger audience, the number is closer to one in 20.

Internet news sites based in China are barred from carrying out their own reporting, and the content they publish is heavily controlled, largely through the monthly censorship meetings attended by Yahoo. This summer, for instance, when demonstrators marched on the Japanese embassy, the censors told the assembled news executives to play down the event, says an Internet company employee familiar with the meetings, who asked not to be identified out of fear of arrest.

Riots and protests are taboo, as are subjects the government worries will debase Chinese culture. After a blogger named Sister Lotus gained notoriety by posting pictures of herself with overblown captions ("People never tire of looking at my face, and my physique gives men nosebleeds" was one boast), the censor ordered Web sites to stop publishing news about her.

During the meetings that Yahoo attends, the speaker will generally list up to five banned items, then suggest news to emphasize. President Hu Jintao's campaign to "preserve the advanced nature" of his party and the hundredth birthday of Chen Yun, a top Communist leader who died in 1995, are two recent examples. For these, the government might offer a press packet. But on banned items, it is more discreet. Nothing is ever handed out.

When news breaks, the censors control it by updating the keyword filters. According to the attendee of the meetings, when Jiao Guo Biao, a professor at Beijing University, was fired for denouncing censorship by the Propaganda Ministry, the government ordered that both Jiao's name and "Propaganda Ministry" be blocked.

News, such as last week's killing of 20 people in southern China by security forces, might flare briefly on Chinese language blogs and bulletin boards. But once it is flagged, it fades away as old sites are taken down and new ones are blocked. "The Internet has no memory in China," says Nicolas Becquelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights in China.

Foreign companies cooperate or risk being blocked themselves. A Yahoo search for "Taiwan Independence" will return only sites the government has approved. And this summer, Microsoft, which has more than 1,000 employees in China, began barring words like "democracy," "freedom" and "human rights" from the titles that users gave their blog postings. Microsoft doesn't send an employee to the news censorship meetings because it doesn't have to. The news on its portal is supplied by the government-controlled Beijing Youth Daily.

Google began accommodating the censors long before it had a formal presence in the country. Chinese-language Google news searches filter out results from sources like Voice of America and the dissident Epoch Times.

In September, Reporters Without Borders revealed that Yahoo had supplied information used to convict Shi Tao, a journalist who used a Yahoo account to e-mail a description of reporting restrictions during the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre to a U. S.-based dissident group. After Yahoo linked the e-mail with Shi's computer, he was convicted of revealing state secrets and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Reporters Without Borders says he is doing forced labor in a jewelry factory. His mother, Gao Qinsheng, who is allowed five-minute visits, describes him as skinny. "He is not allowed to write," she says. "And the books we brought to him need to go through strict examination to make sure there is no words like 'democracy' in them."

It wasn't the first time Yahoo helped convict a political dissident. According to court documents, Yahoo supplied evidence against Jiang Lijun, an activist accused of setting up a political party and planning to phone in a fake bomb threat. Yahoo discovered that Jiang held an account on its servers and had drafted an e-mail called "Declaration," which contained a party program for the Liberal Democratic Party and the announcement of its formation. Jiang was sentenced to four years in prison.

"Our daily work is based on the Internet," says Hu Jia, a prominent AIDS activist. He says he's gone from using e-mail accounts on government servers to those provided by Chinese companies to those provided by Yahoo. After hearing of Shi's conviction, he's moved to Gmail. "What will we do if we hear they are not safe?" he asks. "We will be homeless at that time."

The censorship works. The casual user will rarely stumble on political material, and sensitive information doesn't spread. The two sources who described the meetings at Beijing's Information Office spoke shortly after news of the Shi Tao case had broken. Major U. S. newspapers had covered the story and it was storming across the English-language China blogs. China's state news agency had even published a short piece. But two tech professionals with firsthand knowledge of government censorship -- who by describing the meetings were committing a crime similar to the one that had put Shi in prison -- had not heard of Yahoo's involvement. The Chinese government had effectively kept them from hearing the news.

Activists may be able to reach other activists, but unlike in the West, their efforts don't filter down to the common man. In China, their message is muffled. By distributing the work across several layers of government, farming out the filtering to the private sector, and focusing the law on the most high-profile cases, China has shown it can keep tight control on the Internet, even as it expands.

Some observers argue that despite falling in line with Chinese censorship, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google are doing more good than harm in the country. "For every Shi Tao in jail, there are millions of people who have unprecedented access to information from around China and the outside world, thanks in part to those corporations," Goldkorn posted on Danwei. Were they to pull out, the argument goes, news sites would still be censored, searches would still be filtered, dissidents would still be jailed, but consumers would have less choice.

Foreign companies defend their actions in China by saying, in the words of a Yahoo spokesperson, that they must "operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based." Similarly, says a Microsoft representative in Beijing, "Microsoft is a multinational business and as such abides by the laws, regulations and norms of each market in which it operates."

Google, which filters anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi sites from its French and German versions to avoid running afoul of local laws, has said it excludes censored sites as a service to its customers. Rather than return results that will come up as annoying broken links, Google simply removes them from its searches "to create the best possible search experience for our mainland China users," a spokesperson told the Associated Press. The company did not respond to Salon's requests for an explanation of why its site in China filters out results for sources like Voice of America and Epoch Times.

The American companies are faced with a tough choice. The Chinese government doesn't hesitate to use its economic clout to exact the concessions it wants. The hope had been that as the Internet took off, the Chinese government would ease its restrictions or lose control. But that hasn't happened.

When China first began building its Internet infrastructure, some critics accused the American companies of supplying Internet technology that could be used for censorship. But China no longer needs help building a strong system of control. It already has one. What the censors lack now is legitimacy. Yahoo, Microsoft and Google find themselves in a trap. When they cooperate with the censors, they lend their names to China's crackdowns. They get a cut of the China market. But the Chinese get a cut of their reputation.

By Stephan Faris

Stephan Faris has written for Time, Fortune, and the New York Daily News.

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