China Restricts Access to Popular Web Sites

Published May 1, 2008

Reports of China restricting access to the popular video-sharing Web site YouTube amid protests in Tibet and Western China are bringing renewed scrutiny of the country’s government and the American technology companies that do business with them. Caught in the crossfire is Google, the American technology firm that owns YouTube.

Chinese authorities blocked the YouTube site on March 15, five days after the eruption of protests coinciding with the 49th anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese occupation of Tibet. The move was intended to prevent the spread of videos showing violent clashes between protesters and provincial security forces in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

The Chinese government says 13 civilians have been killed by rioters, and it has admitted to shooting four protesters dead. The crackdown occurred just two weeks before the torch-lighting ceremony for the forthcoming Olympic Games to be held in Beijing.

According to Google and independent reports out of China, access to YouTube and news sites including had been restored by March 24, just in time for the ceremony.

American Firms in Crossfire

The blocking of YouTube coincided with restrictions on foreign access to Tibet and Western China. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based non-governmental organization devoted to defending freedom of the press, stated, “Online censorship is also veering into racism, with comment items urging the killing of Tibetan separatists, while all independent news on the events is being censored.”

Google is not alone in suffering criticism from Western media and activist groups for contributing to the so-called “Great Firewall of China,” referring to China’s ability to block access to certain portions of the Internet.

In 2002 California-based Yahoo, Inc. was the subject of a Weekly Standard cover story, “Who Lost China’s Internet?” accusing the search engine company of compromising itself by agreeing to Beijing’s demands. Other U.S.-based Web sites frequently blocked by Chinese authorities include Blogspot, another Google property, and the reference Web site Wikipedia.

Intrusion Ill-Advised

Experts on China and Internet policy in the United States are urging lawmakers to exercise caution and not insert themselves into the debate.

“There’s no law or policy they can pass in the U.S. that would make the interaction of business and government in China more favorable to free speech and liberty there, or productive of a free-speech ‘breakthrough,'” said Jim Harper, director of information studies at the Cato Institute.

“It’s unfair and, I think, unproductive to try to export American values by requiring U.S. businesses operating overseas to conduct themselves consistent with [domestic] U.S. law and norms,” Harper said.

Jerome Cohen, an Asia specialist at New York University, noted placing restrictions on American business interests in China would be inconsistent if not applied to other countries. “Anything lawmakers do should not be focused exclusively on China,” he said.

Cohen also noted China is not immune to public pressure. Authorities must weigh how offensive they consider the content against “the cost to them once it’s known they’re blocking it,” he said. “How will it add to the perception of China as a non-transparent society?”

Business Can Push Change

Harper says these extra-governmental restraints are more effective in changing China’s attitudes toward civil liberties, and he recommended Google take a “work to rule” approach.

“Do exactly what the Chinese government requires of you, and nothing more,” Harper said. “I’m not entirely confident that they do that. It’s very hard to know, and it would violate norms in China for Google to publicize how it works with the government.”

Harper says the public pressure brought to bear by groups such as Reporters Without Borders is a “welcome influence,” although he disagrees with their calls for legislative action. He sees proper remedies coming not from U.S. government intervention but from the firms’ loss of standing at home.

“Working with the Chinese government should hurt Google in its domestic U.S. market,” Harper said. “Under that pressure, I think the right balance of cooperation and reticence to cooperate with the Chinese government will be struck.

“We certainly do not want Google to think it should link arms with the government and become a zealous administrator of the government’s censorship,” Harper continued. “Overall, the presence of Google and so many other companies in China will find cracks in the censorship regime, working on a molecular level to destroy the state’s control of the media, the economy, and ultimately the political system.

“That’s why we want them there, doing business, even if they have to compromise the free-speech values that we hold so dear,” Harper concluded.

William Beutler ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.