IPv6 and Internet Censorship

A very important article on Internet and Society.

Cash for acquiescence

The Chinese push to yoke the internet shows that we shouldn't rely on
businesses as standard-bearers for free speech, says Salil Tripathi

Tuesday April 4, 2006
The window of opportunity to rein in companies colluding with China's
drive to control the internet may be closing fast.

In mid-March, China eagerly supported a new internet standard that can
help a government trace individual users. Hu Qiheng, chair of the
Internet Society of China warmly embraced IPv6, which both allows
companies to tailor web content to meet individual needs by tracing
them and empowers governments like China's to track down individuals
who might "misbehave" online.

Like most innovations, IPv6 is value-neutral. It is designed to
multiply the number of available internet addresses (from about 4.7bn
now to, potentially, trillions) and establishes a protocol that can
help companies observe a user's habits. But it can also help China
monitor dissent.

IPv6 will strengthen China's relentless drive to tame the internet,
supposedly a tool for empowering people with unfettered access to
information. In 1998, Bill Gates thought China would come around to
the industry's view. In a conversation with the Israeli leader Shimon
Peres, Mr Gates said: "Certainly, progress in terms of freedom of
information in a place like China has been greatly aided by
technology. Even though China once considered filtering the internet,
its authorities now say that such an effort impedes the commercial
benefits of the net."

Instead, the industry blinked. Cisco and Nortel Networks helped China
build a powerful electronic firewall. They claimed they were only
providing the technology; they could not control how it was used.
Yahoo! said it was only complying with the law when it provided
information which helped the government jail a journalist who was
using his Yahoo! email account to disseminate information. In January
this year, Microsoft took down a blog that the government did not like
and Google admitted cooperating with Chinese censorship by preventing
access to sites the Chinese wanted blocked.

Google was unhappy doing this, but it claimed it had no choice.
Shrewdly, it said it would not offer email or blogs in China, so that
it would not have to hold user information and could truthfully tell
the authorities that it could not hand over data which it did not

Google's sophisticated response is still a compromise; it reflects the
conventional wisdom that China is too important a market, and that
companies have to comply to ensure they don't get shut out. Some
corporate analysts applaud - they say that as publicly listed
companies, Google, Microsoft or Yahoo! have no business grandstanding
for political freedoms.

Companies have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the interest of
shareholders, and they didn't invest in these companies to reform
China: such is that logic.

Google and Microsoft say they have complied with such regulations
elsewhere as well: in Europe, they would restrict material glorifying
the Nazis. Other companies have cooperated with authorities to keep
the internet safe for children.

Yahoo! have been less compliant. In 2003, when India asked the company
to ban a newsgroup run by a separatist organisation, the Hynniewtrep
National Liberation Council, Yahoo! refused. In 2000, citing US laws
protecting free speech, it said a French judgment to ban Nazi auctions
on Yahoo! was "unenforceable", even as its local affiliate agreed to
remove such items from the French website.

But the emerging consensus seems to be there is one set of rules for
other countries, another for China.

Recognising the minefield, in late January Microsoft announced that in
future it would cooperate when authorities provided written
instructions to take down material, but it would keep the content
available elsewhere in the world; and it would explain to the user why
the decision was taken.

It can be argued that none of this is necessary. China has signed the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which
Article 19 guarantees the right to hold opinions and to freedom of
expression (including the right to seek, receive and impart

Furthermore, Article 35 of the Chinese constitution states its
citizens "enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of
association, of procession, and of demonstration".

That the Chinese authorities routinely violate their own constitution
does not make the law wrong; it makes their practices wrong.
Beyond that, the argument that companies are only following official
orders is a perilous one. During the Nuremberg tribunal after the
second world war, several business executives who said they were only
obeying orders were nonetheless found guilty of assisting crimes
against humanity, when they used forced labour, or provided financial
or other support to the Nazi regime.

The principle of "aiding and abetting" grave abuses has got wider
currency since then in the war-crime tribunals for Rwanda and the
Balkans, and in the lawsuit Burmese nationals filed in the US against
Unocal Corp under the Alien Tort Claims Act (the company settled that
claim out-of-court).

Nobody sensible is accusing Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, or Cisco of
assisting abuses comparable to war crimes. But there are inherent
risks in cooperating with China, particularly if the company assists
an act that stretches our understanding of obeying orders in the
company's home jurisdiction.

This does not mean companies should not invest in China. During the
apartheid years, some companies pulled out of South Africa for sound
reasons when they found that their products were used to administer
apartheid (as Polaroid did); others stayed, and tried operating under
the colour-blind framework of the Sullivan principles.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission recognised this
and established three levels of responsibility: companies that
actively helped design and implement apartheid policies; companies
that knew the state would use their products or services for
repression; and, companies which benefitted only indirectly by
operating within a racially segregated context.

Information companies operating in China should similarly examine
their role, to identify whether they are actively colluding by
designing systems that help China implement its repressive policies;
acquiescing when ordered to do so; or benefiting by operating in a
repressive system.

Beyond that, there is a legitimate question about what can be expected
from companies operating in China. Nobody elected companies to fix bad
governance; it is not their business to act as governments. When
companies tried doing this in the past, such behaviour was often
perceived as colonial.

Fixing bad governments is the responsibility of the people within the
country, and where they cannot, the international community helps
them: it is the role for the state department, the Foreign Office and
others like them. But in the Chinese case, they seem to be shirking
that role, hoping that companies will do the tough-talking.

Legislators fulminating against IT companies should instead write laws
to create a regulatory framework that would require companies to
comply with laws at home that apply abroad, which are consistent with
freedom of expression. The US congressman Chris Smith, who called
hearings in Washington in mid-February, is drafting legislation that
would prevent US-based IT companies from turning over data to
governments like China's.

There is a precedent. The US passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act
in 1976. At that time, many American companies argued that such laws
placed an undue burden on them, compared to their competitors.
Over the years, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and
Development (OECD) took on corruption on its agenda, making its
guidelines apply to its 30 members (who between them account for the
bulk of the world's foreign direct investment), and now a global
anti-corruption convention is in place.

Extending that analogy, it is for governments to pass legislation to
prevent their companies from cooperating with totalitarian
governments. In the end, the fight for freedom of expression is too
important to be left in the hands of companies; it is not something
that should be outsourced to the Silicon Valley.

· Salil Tripathi is a former economics correspondent at the Far
Eastern Economic Review


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