Sunday :: Jan 15, 2006

The Price Of Free Speech - Part II


by pessimist

Have I ever regaled you with tales of why I detest Microsoft? My reasons for this abhoration are legion, and growing.

In the first place, Microsoft products suck - but I'm not going to waste bandwidth on that, or on the relative merits of the Mac vs. Intel/AMD running non-Windows (and I ask that you not also!). There are better forums for those discussions.

My issue is how Microsoft - a company that could never have existed without the technology support provided to the Pentagon and America's colleges by the taxpayers - is screwing the nation that spawned it.

I've written recently about Microsoft investing $1.7 billion in India and creating 3,000 new jobs that used to go to Americans. Now I find that they are also expanding a cryptography lab and are developing multilingual e-map technology - in India.

Remember - these are some of the jobs that Colin Powell promised would go to India and not America!

Now, as if that wasn't bad enough, Microsoft is opening a new lab in Beijing, tasked with the development of advertising tailored to your thinking through technologies examining your Web-browsing habits and which would allow advertisers to choose they want to target with MSN search ads.

One would think that this isn't such a good idea for these reasons. The first is that even more jobs that used to go to Americans have now gone overseas. But it's the second that bothers me even more. The fact that China already censors the Web usage of its citizens with Microsoft's assistance tells me that this new technology is only going to make that practice even easier.

This is already bothering some - particularly because the blog that was censored was not housed on a Chinese server.

Is this China's answer to King George's doctrine that American law trumps any other - even outside our borders?

When Yahoo cooperated with Chinese official in accessing the email account of Chinese reporter Shi Tao, accused of revealing 'state secrets', the servers in question were in China and thus subject to Chinese law.

Some, forgetting just how much American debt is owed to China, think that American companies shouldn't be so cooperative with the Chinese government:

Representative Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, said on Thursday that the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Human Rights, which he heads, will hold a hearing in early to mid-February. The effort is designed to determine what can be done, either by legislative mandate or on a voluntary basis, to "dissociate a company from working hand-in-glove with a dictatorship", said Smith.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders this week backed a law banning a US company from hosting an email server in any "repressive" country. It's also suggested US corporations come up with a joint plan for how to handle censorship requests from foreign governments, including refusal to censor terms such as "democracy" and "human rights".

US companies continue to play an active role in China's internet censorship, providing hardware, software and content filtering services. While these interactions between US corporations and China's government may be legitimate commercial decisions, in sum they had the effect of helping to build and legitimise the government's media censorship efforts.
Cisco has been accused of building technology that allows Chinese officials to filter sites. John Earnhardt, the company's senior manager for policy communications, said: "Our routers have embedded technology in them that allows network administrators to manage their networks", acknowledging that "this technology can be used to block access to sites they don't want users to access".
But the same features are present in routers regardless of the country in which they are sold, he noted.

Including those in the United States. Can we be sure that the Scalito-Roberts Court will protect our rights - especially as we are not willing to bow to the Corporate King of Crawford?

We think not. After all, the needs of business supercede the needs of bloggers:

Sonia Arrison, director of technology studies at the free-market Pacific Research Institute, said: "If Yahoo! isn't doing business in China, someone else will. It's putting American businesses at a disadvantage in the world marketplace."

As BusinessWeek puts it:

The idea that a company operating in China could say, "Oh well, I'm not giving you this information" is not sustainable in the end. The Yahoo case was a tragic illustration of the cost of doing business in China. We know abstractly that you have to make compromises when you operate in China, but this case showed what it means. People really end up in jail.

And I'll bet our wrong-wing friends can't wait for that to start happening here in the Land of the Freebooter and the Home of the Brave Chickenhawk!

But I digress.

In an excerpt straight out of 1984's Ministry of Truth, BusinessWeek reports that in China, Big Brother is here - and history is already being changed:

[Y]ou could find a lot of outright criticism of the party. For all these incidents you have a wave of Internet discussion, and it gives an impression that the party doesn't really control this anymore. But this is omitting a fundamental characteristic of how information works.

Information is not only circulation - archiving and retrieval [are] even more important - but none of the information stays.

After the crisis all of this will be wiped out. In two months, you won't find anything, because the censors will have gotten to it. The owners, the editors of the Web sites, receive instructions from the propaganda dept of the party. Everything is washed away.

Why? What motivates the owners of web sites to do this?

The person who manages is the person who bears responsibility. The keystone of the censorship system in China is that basically ownership is censorship.
If you own something -- Web site editor, newspaper editor, press group owner -- you are responsible for what is there.
There is no grey zone: If you operate this portal, this BBS, you are responsible for what is on it. The key thing is you make the decision. It's not the party that makes the decision. They are not going to scrutinize every BBS. You make the decision, they tell you. Companies responsible to shareholders and staff will, of course, err on the side of caution and self-censorship.

Is this not what has happened to the once-free media of America? Do they not already self-censor because some major advertising account - or the government - isn't going to like the coverage topics?

Admittedly, things have gotten somewhat more open since the 2005 National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis. But as keynote speaker Bill Moyers said:

It’s the tendency of media giants, operating on big-business principles, to exalt commercial values at the expense of democratic value. That is, to run what Edward R. Murrow forty-five years ago called broadcasting’s “money-making machine” at full throttle. In so doing they are squeezing out the journalism that tries to get as close as possible to the verifiable truth; they are isolating serious coverage of public affairs into ever-dwindling “news holes” or far from prime-time; and they are gobbling up small and independent publications competing for the attention of the American people.

What would happen, however, if the contending giants of big government and big publishing and broadcasting ever joined hands? Ever saw eye to eye in putting the public’s need for news second to free-market economics? That’s exactly what’s happening now under the ideological banner of “deregulation.” Giant megamedia conglomerates that our founders could not possibly have envisioned are finding common cause with an imperial state in a betrothal certain to produce not the sons and daughters of liberty but the very kind of bastards that issued from the old arranged marriage of church and state.

If free and independent journalism committed to telling the truth without fear or favor is suffocated, the oxygen goes out of democracy. And there is a surer way to intimidate and then silence mainstream journalism than to be the boss.
We have to fight to keep the gates to the Internet open to all. The web has enabled many new voices in our democracy – and globally – to be heard: advocacy groups, artists, individuals, non-profit organizations. Just about anyone can speak online, and often with an impact greater than in the days when orators had to climb on soap box in a park.

If we’re not vigilant the wide-open spaces of the Internet could be transformed into a system in which a handful of companies [like, for instance, Microsoft - ed.] use their control over high-speed access to ensure they remain at the top of the digital heap in the broadband era at the expense of the democratic potential of this amazing technology. So we must fight to make sure the Internet remains open to all as the present-day analogue of that many-tongued world of small newspapers so admired by de Tocqueville.

I first began this topic back in September in a post entitled The Price Of Free Speech - Part I. As this post demonstrates, that cost is getting more expensive. How soon will it be before the cost is too prohibitive, and we no longer have a voice in world affairs?

Ask Bill Gates. He's clearly working toward that goal.

And you wonder why I hate Microsoft!


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