Posts about china

Guardian column: Google is our ambassador

Here’s my Guardian column this week on Google and China. See also this post proposing a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace.

* * *

This year at Davos, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told a room of journalists that his company is not a country, does not set laws, and does not have a police force. Yet in its showdown with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet. Well, somebody has to.

Next to no one has been willing to stand up to China’s suppression of speech online. Other companies—Yahoo—have handed over information that led to the imprisonment of dissidents. More companies—Cisco—have helped China build its Great Firewall. Many more—from News Corp to the New York Times Company—have coveted the Chinese market and overlooked the regime’s tyranny to do business there. Governments have hardly been better, doing little to nothing to pressure China over human and digital rights.

But Google did. Now it has turned off the filter it never should have created if it wanted to stay true to its don’t-be-evil dictum. It has dared the Chinese government to block search and speech and expose its censorship to its people. By its action, Google also dares other companies and governments to follow.

The fight against apartheid in South Africa had its Sullivan Principles; the fight for free speech and a free, secure internet now has its Google Principles. I don’t mean to equate the virtual repression in the Chinese internet with the racial, physical, and economic repression that occurred in South Africa under apartheid. But in both instances, there came a time when companies had to ask—or be asked—whether they could justify supporting tyrannical regimes. Pulling out of China is a moral decision.

Today, moral decisions are also business decisions. London economist Umair Haque argues that when we can all talk about companies online, the price of doing evil has increased. Google is repairing its social standing.

Cynics say Google left China because it was beaten by Baidu; few Western companies are competing well against Chinese counterparts (even Rupert Murdoch has been foiled). But I say Google is instead defending its entire business—because it is defending the internet itself against censorship, government control, espionage, and attack.

Google’s business strategy is dead simple: The more we use the internet, the more Google makes. If governments are allowed and enabled to restrict freedom on the internet to a lowest common denominator (as the U.K.’s libel tourism does for publishing), and if we worry that our data in the cloud is not secure, and if citizens of totalitarian states fear the internet will be used to jail them, then we will trust and use it less. Google loses. We all lose.

But even Google cannot fight this alone. “No single company and no single industry can tackle Internet censorship on its own,” Google’s director of public policy, Alan Davidson, told a Congressional panel last week. He urged Congress to consider withholding development aid for countries that restrict online speech and including a pledge for free speech online in trade agreements. Davidson said 40 nations censor the internet today and 25 governments have blocked Google.

I wait to see what governments in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe will do to support the freedom and security of the Chinese people and of the internet (so far, it seems, the White House is applauding Google’s actions with one hand). I wait to see other companies matching Google’s guts.

Or perhaps what I should wish instead for popular support for free speech in the internet—a movement from us, the society of users. That is how companies and governments were pressured to divest their interests in South Africa. So where is our outcry for freedom and security? The internet is ours to lose.

In 1996, Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow wrote a rousing Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (http://bit.ly/dofi): “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one….”

Perhaps we now need a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace to claim and secure our freedom to connect, speak, assemble, and act online; to each control our own identities and data; to speak our languages; to protect both what is public and private; and to assure openness. (Please come and suggest and discuss its articles at http://bit.ly/cyberrights.)

With that, our diplomatic mission to the old world—Google—can fight for what’s right. After all, someone must.

A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

In my Media Guardian column this Monday, I will suggest that we need a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace as a set of amendments to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Note that I do not suggest the establishment a Constitution of the Internet; I think that would violate the tenets Barlow so eloquently if grandiosely sets forth. We don’t need government in cyberspace; we need freedom.

This Bill of Rights attempts to establish the fundamental freedoms of our internet that must be protected against abridgment by governments, companies, institutions, criminals, subverters, or mobs. I suggest in my column that in its confrontation with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet to the old world under its own (rediscovered) principles. So we would be wise to establish our principles. I ask the column’s readers to come to this post to suggest and discuss articles. Also discuss at the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

Here are mine:

* * *

A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

I. We have the right to connect.

This is a preamble and precondition to the American First Amendment: before we can speak, we must be able to connect. Hillary Clinton defines the freedom to connect as “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other.” It is this principle that also informs discussion of net neutrality.

II. We have the right to speak.

No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge the limitations on freedom of speech but they must defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves operating under a lowest common denominator of offense. Freedom is our default.

III. We have the right to speak in our languages.

The English language’s domination of the internet has faded as more languages and alphabets have joined the net, which is to be celebrated. But Ethan Zuckerman also cautions that in our polyglot internet, we will want to build bridges across languages. We will want to speak in our own languages but also speak with others’.

IV. We have the right to assemble.

In the American Bill of Rights, the right to assemble is listed separately from the right to speak. The internet enables us to organize without organizations and collaborate and that now threatens repressive regimes as much as speech.

V. We have the right to act.

These first articles are a thread: We connect to speak and speak to assemble and assemble to act and that is how we can and will change the world, not just putting forth grievances but creating the means to fix them. That is what threatens the institutions that would stop us.

VI. We have the right to control our data.

You should have access to data about you. And what’s yours is yours. We want the internet to operate on a principle of portability, so your information and creations cannot be held prisoner by a service or government and so you retain control. But keep in mind that when control is given to one, it is taken from another; in those details lurk devils. This principle thus speaks to copyright and its laws, which set the definitions and limits of control or creation. This principle also raises questions about whether the wisdom of the crowd belongs to the crowd.

VII. We have the right to our own identity.

This is not as simple as a name. Our identity online is made up of our names, addresses, speech, creations, actions, connections. Note also that in repressive regimes, maintaining anonymity — hiding one’s identity — is a necessity; thus anonymity, with all its faults and baggage and trolls, must also be protected online to protect the dissenter and the whistleblower. Note finally that these two articles — controlling our data and our identities — make up the right to privacy, which is really a matter of control.

VIII. What is public is a public good.

The internet is public; indeed, it is a public place (rather than a medium). In the rush to protect privacy, we must beware the dangers of restricting the definition of public. What’s public is owned by the public. Making the public private or secret serves the corrupt and tyrannical.

IX. The internet shall be built and operated openly.

The internet must continue to be built and operated to open standards. It must not be taken over or controlled by any company or government. It must not be taxed. It is the internet’s openness that gives it its freedom. It is this freedom that defines the internet.

* * *

More:
* Bruce Sterling quoting Timothy Garton Ash on the state of freedom of information.
* Ethan Zuckerman: We can’t circumvent our way around censorship.
* Ethan Zuckerman on internet freedom.
* Rebecca MacKinnon’s Congressional testimony on internet freedom and Chinese censorship.
* Kevin Marks compares China’s policies and the U.K.’s Digital Britain bill.
* Clay Shirky: “What forces Google to have a foreign policy is that what they’re exporting isn’t a product or a service, it’s a freedom.”

* * *
Thanks to Benoit Raphael here is a French version of the Bill of Rights and here is a German version at Zeit Online. Now thanks to Itai Alter, here it is as a Google Doc in Hebrew.

And now, most appropriately, in Chinese. Note, however, the disclaimer at the bottom of that page (via Google Translate): “?This translation is only the purpose of language learning and reading, the original author and the translator and the translation of personal opinion has nothing to do made by Network].”

Also in Norwegian thanks to Arne Halvorsen. I hope that Arabic and Persian are coming.

And then (in German) there is an alternative version.

Another German translation here.

Google news

First, the news: Google told me today that they would consider giving more transparency about revenue splits in Adsense.

At a private meeting with a dozen and a half media people at Davos with CEO Eric Schmidt, President of sales Nikesh Arora, search boss Marissa Mayer, YouTube founder Chad Hurley, and counsel/”chief diplomat” (Schmidt’s joke) David Drummond in a Davos apartment dolled up with lava lamps, the execs discussed China, the company’s push into display, critics from France to News Corp., Android and its phone strategy, and news.

* * *

AdSense: At the DLD conference in Munich Monday, Burda CEO Paul-Bernhard Kallen, on a panel with Drummond, said publishers wanted transparency and their “fair share.” I asked him, a fair share of what — AdSense? Kallen said yes. And that put a fence around this debate. Drummond went on to emphasize that publishers do not deserve a share of a search for a camera that doesn’t involve their content. He also said transparency could be discussed.

At today’s briefing, Arora said that the company was considering more transparency. I confirmed with Google’s people that this was new. I suspect that they’re not going to promise the possibility and not deliver something.

I’m happy about this because, with China, this seems to strike off my two biggest complaints — both in What Would Google Do? — about Google: its prior lack of support of free speech in China and its hypocrisy on transparency and ad rates.

* * *

China: “We made a decision that was consistent with our values,” Schmidt said. “We’re not going to operate differently in China as opposed to the rest of the world,” said Drummond.

When is Gooogle going to do something? “It should happen soon,” Drummond said.

Was Google’s original stance on China — making it an exception to its own rules — a mistake? “We said consistently we would evaluate the position,” said Schmidt, “and people didn’t believe us.”

On the attacks, Schmidt said the company had a moral need to “make sure our systems are safe from attack anywhere.”

They wouldn’t discuss any details about any discussions with China. One editor asked whether Google was upset that other companies — especially those that also suffered attacks — have not come forward to openly support Google. I went farther and said that Microsoft had thrown Google under the bus and backed up over it. Schmidt repeatedly said that he manages Google, not other companies. “We speak for ourselves.”

Drummond said the problem of censorship is not in China alone. Hurley said YouTube is blocked in China, Turkey, and Iran “because of freedom of speech.”

“I believe this is an evergreen story for Google and other online companies,” Schmidt said. “As the world goes online, every country is going to have a discussion about what’s appropriate and what’s not. And a lot of these organizations [that is, governments] have not really thought through what they’re doing. We have a strong view about transparency.” [It's about to get a little stronger, it seems.]

Though Schmidt joked about Drummond as Google’s diplomat and apolgized for mixing metaphors, he emphasized that Google is not a country, does not set laws, and does not have a police force — or diplomats This is a government-to-government issue, he said.

* * *

Google’s reputation: I asked whether it was lonely at the top, getting grief from France to Germany to News Corp to China. Is it because Google is so big? Is it because it is putting itself on the ledge? Is it a PR problem? Schmidt said no.

“Google is fundamentally disruptive because of our innovation,” Schmidt said. “Google, because of our architecture, does things at a larger scale than others can. We are in the information space, which everyone has an opinion on. … You asked me how does it feel from a Google perspective? It feels as if we’re in the right place.” These aren’t crises, Schmidt said. He treated them as a factor in doing business. “It’s constnat. It’s because it’s information that maters.”

* * *

Innovation: Schmidt later talked about the difficulty we all know companies such as this can have: growing big and killing innovation. He talked about the canonical Silicon Valley story: a company starts, it innovates, it grows to middle age, it grows bored, it is sold to another company. Schmidt et al are clearly aware of that threat. Apple, he said, has “proven the model of innovation at scale.”

* * *

Phones: Will they have a tablet? “You might want to tell me what the difference is between a large phone and a tablet,” Schmidt said.

How will they make money on phones? “Not to worry,” Schmidt said. “We do not charge for Android because we can make money in other contexts.”

The strategy, he said, is to establish volume for application development to follow. “The phone is defined by the apps,” he said.

Schmidt took my Nexus One and demonstrated Google Sky. Mayer said the guy in charge of mobile uses Google Goggles to take pictures of wine labels and search on them so he can sound smart: “It tastes of apricot blossoms.” Mayer told Schmidt about Layar (a very neat agumented reality program I wrote about here earlier); he didn’t even know about it yet.

* * *

The economy: “The recession is very much behind us,” Schmidt said. “We see growth and successful businesses I think pretty much everywhere in the world.””

* * *

Display ads: Schmidt said the company is “trying to apply the science of Google to the display space. Display is likely to be our next really big business globally.”

Arora said that today marketers buy sites when they want to buy audiences. He said Google will “bring measurability to the process of display” and it is “trying to find a way for the industry to bring the entire inventory together.” That is, “most agencies and buyers don’t have the tools to aggregate across publishers.” Schmidt added: “Before the google question was applied to this, you couldn’t have scale.”

Isn’t this just an ad network? Arora said it would be a collection of networks, an exchange that would “allow you to separate the best owners of inventory from the best sellers of inventory.” I don’t understand what that means and will ask.

Aren’t publishers going to see Google as again disintermediating them and hurting their brands? I asked. Google said the platform will bring greater transparency, more inventory, faster, with scale and speed and that publishers who participate will gain more revenue from the inventory they have (and don’t sell). Indeed, I was talking with one newspaper editor before the meeting as he lamented the small size of the percentage that is sold.

* * *

Relations with newspapers: “We depend on high-quality content,” Schmidt said.

Mayer said Google will help publishers make more money. It will create better advertising products for them, improving display. It will provide ads that are more relevant. It will support pay efforts.

She also said Google is working on making news as compelling as possible. “The issue is one of engagement online: if they spent more time online it would be much easier to make money with it,” she said and then added that publsihers must “bring the news to users’ digital doorsteps.” Amen. I’ve written often here about the challenges of engagement and the need to think distributed. Those are ripe areas for Google to help news.

* * *

YouTube: Schmidt said he was very pleased with YouTube and that it was making money but he and Hurley wouldn’t get in the slightest bit specific about the definition of making money (profit? cash flow?) let alone numbers. “In the last year, Chad managed to figure out a way to make money using partners and their video content on YouTube,” Schmidt said. Hurley said it took longer than expected to get their because of delays in bringing in Doubleclick. He said they have a sales force selling video in 20 countries. They also recently made a deal with channels 4 and 5 in the UK to distribute content and they’re going to live-stream cricket.

* * *

Pay: Will Lewis of the Telegraph asked “what’s it like being so brutally attacked by News Corp. What side of genius to you think their pay wall idea is?” Of course, Google’s execs didn’t take the bait.

They talked about hybrid business models and said they’d support them and pretty much left it at that.

* * *

Globalization: Schmidt said a majority of Google users are outside the U.S. and he expects that soon most revenue will come from outside the U.S.

* * *

: The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger on the briefing: Google as a country.

What Google should do

I am astounded and delighted at the news that Google is no longer comfortable censoring search results at the call of the Chinese government and is threatening to pull out of the market. Google said it discovered cyberattacks and surveillance aimed at cracking the mail accounts of Chinese supporters of human rights. Said Google exec David Drummond on the company blog:

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

I know some will say that Google wasn’t doing that well in China anyway (it controls 31% of the market); they’ll ascribe cynical motives. But I say: Name one other company that finally said “enough!” and put ethic, morals, and company standards over its lust for the Chinese market. Not Yahoo. Not Cisco. Not Nokia. Not Siemens. Not The New York Times Company. Google has.

Here’s what I said in What Would Google Do? about China:

Google has censored search results in China, arguing that it is better to bring a hampered internet there than no internet at all. I don’t agree and believe that Google has more power than it knows to pressure countries around the world to respect openness and free speech. Google, like Yahoo, has handed over information to governments—Google in India, Yahoo in China—that led to users being arrested simply for what they said. As an American and a First Amendment absolutist, I’d call that evil.

Here’s what I said in a talk at Google’s offices in Washington. (Thanks to commenters, the time code for the start of the topic is 23:38.)

Note that even Google’s cofounder, Sergey Brin, has waffled if not agonized over the company’s China policy.

I can well be accused of being a Google fanboy; I wrote the book. But I have been consistent in my criticism of Google’s actions in China. And so now I have not choice but to become even more of a fanboy. I applaud Google for finally standing up to the Chinese dictatorship and for free speech.

Will the Chinese people revolt at losing Google? We can only hope. Will other companies now have to hesitate before doing the dictators’ bidding? We can only hope. Will Google be punished by Wall Street? It probably will. But as I’ve argued, we should hope that Google’s pledge, Don’t be evil, will one day be chiseled over the doors of Wall Street.

Google has thrown the gauntlet down in favor of freedom. What Should Google Do? This is what it should do.

: MORE: Said Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard’s Berkman Center: “In a world in which we are so used to public relations massaging of messages, this stands out as a direct declaration. It’s amazing.”

: Says Reuters: “The world’s dominant search firm may be hoping other search and e-mail leaders, both global and domestic, will rally around it in calling for China to lighten a heavy-handed approach to the Internet that includes frequent censorship and allegations of government-backed hacking.”

: YET MORE: Zeit Online calls Google a quasi-state that is willing to stand up to China where the U.S. and Germany are not. But it also warns that Google’s interests are not what they seem. (In German.)

: A view of the PR strategy:

Google has taken the China corporate communications playbook, wrapped it in oily rags, doused it in gasoline and dropped a lit match on it. In China, foreign companies tend to be deferential to the authorities to the point of obsequiousness, in a way that you would almost certainly never encounter in the United States or Europe. . . . In this situation Google has undertaken a bet-the-farm confrontational communications approach in China. They will not have made this decision lightly. Dressed up in the polite language above is what is essentially an ultimatum: Allow us to present uncensored search results to our Chinese users or we’ll walk.

: Rebecca MacKinnon, who knows whereof she speaks on matters China and internet, says Google is doing the right thing.

: James Fallows, who also knows, says this:

And if a major U.S. company — indeed, Google has been ranked the #1 brand in the world — has concluded that, in effect, it must break diplomatic relations with China because its policies are too repressive and intrusive to make peace with, that is a significant judgment. . . . But its government is on a path at the moment that courts resistance around the world. To me, that is what Google’s decision signifies.

: Siva Vaidhyanathan responds to me here. There’s a chicken v. egg debate about what’s leading this: the attacks or the censorship. I agree that the censorship is a tool in this power struggle; it clearly was not the catalyst or it could have been four years ago. But I think it’s also evident –see Sergey Brin four years ago — that Google, despite its public pronouncements about a crippled internet being better than no internet, struggled internally with its China policy. Slapping China over censorship is now a way to bring make the fight about attacks about China. Pick your sin — attacks, censorship (or the death penalty or repression of dissent or dangerous and fatal products) — somebody — Google — finally had the balls to make China the issue. I’ve sat in WEF meeting where some have shushed me and others for daring to criticize China: it’s a Chinese thing; you wouldn’t understand. Well, bullshit, it’s a human thing; it’s about rights (pick yours).

: See my post above on the rise of the interest-state.

China blinks

I said in What Would Google Do? – and argued the point in a talk at Google in Washington – that Google and other technology companies have more influence than they know – and should use it – in protecting free speech and pressuring censorious governments. I see evidence of the strategy working – or hope I see it – in China’s decision today to delay its noxious Green Dam requirement for all PCs sold there. Government and companies put pressure on; China blinked.

Yahoo’s new CEO, Carol Bartz, said in July that it’s not her job to fix governments. But neither is it a company’s job to enable tyrannical governments in their tyranny. Technology companies from Cisco to Nokia to Siemens that have provided technology to enable censorship and tracking, and companies from Yahoo to Google that have handed over information about users to governments that use it to oppress citizens should be ashamed. And we need to shame them. We need to give them cover by demanding behavior that is not and does not support evil.

In a digital age, censoring the internet, stopping citizens from connecting with each other, and using the internet to spy on and then oppress citizens is evil. We shame companies that helped enable fascist regimes in the ’30s and apartheid in the last century. Is it time for technology boycotts? I’m not sure. But it is time for the discussion.

Can they hear him now?

Nick Kristof uses Twitter to ask readers in China whether they can see what he writes at the Times because the Times reports that China is blocking it.

China, finally

I am delighted that our national — our Western — love affair with China is hitting the skids. We were in love with nothing but its huge and opening market and plain greed pushed every company in sight to move into China, blindly and blithely ignoring the problems there. We could have opened our eyes over human rights. We could have opened our eyes over free speech, Yahoo’s complicity in jailing a journalist, other companies’ complicity in censoring the speech of the Chinese. We could have opened our eyes over the country’s unregulated and amoral economy, poisoning our children, pets, and poor people (some say that is just a stage in economic development; I say bullshit, it is the product of a dictatorship without a moral center). We’ve had so many opportunities. At last, we’re opening our eyes over Tibet and I hope we reexamine our lust for China’s money and the leverage we have to make it behave like a civilized and moral economy.

Finally, the IOC realizes it has a crisis. Finally, companies are realizing that their association with China can be bad for them. Finally, public figures are taking a leadership role (see Steven Spielberg’s refusal to work on the games). And finally, politicians are realizing that they must take a stand. Hillary Clinton and John McCain have said they would not attend the Olympic opening ceremonies, a small but important symbolic statement.

(Barack Obama won’t go that far. Said the Times this morning: “Senator Barack Obama suggested that Mr. Bush should wait to make a final decision, but leave a boycott ‘firmly on the table.’ ” Firmly on the table? That sounds like something a Bush press secretary would say. You see, friends, this is the kind of prevarication I fear from an Obama administration. It’s a small thing, of course, but I see in that small thing I see someone who wants to be everyone’s friend and who has trouble making a firm decision. I see Jimmy Carter.)

On China

Nick Kristof has a terrific column in The New York Times today on the power of blogs and the internet to challenge Chinese dictatorship. Yes, it’s behind the Great Wall of New York. But I’ll quote some good bits.

Kristof starts his own blogs in China and posts all kinds of things that censors should consider inflammatory — about imprisoned journalists, corruption, Falun Gong, and Tiananmen Square. The censors put asterisks on a few words but the posts stay up. And Kristof says:

All this underscores, I think, that China is not the police state that its leaders sometimes would like it to be; the Communist Party’s monopoly on information is crumbling, and its monopoly on power will follow. The Internet is chipping away relentlessly at the Party, for even 30,000 censors can’t keep up with 120 million Chinese Netizens. With the Internet, China is developing for the first time in 4,000 years of history a powerful independent institution that offers checks and balances on the emperors.

It’s not that President Hu Jintao grants these freedoms, for he has arrested dozens of cyberdissidents as well as journalists. But the Internet is just too big and complex for State Security to control, and so the Web is beginning to assume the watchdog role filled by the news media in freer countries. . . .

He tells the story of blogger Li Xinde, whom he has covered before, going around China “reporting on corruption and human-rights abuses.” In a great game of political wack-a-mole, Mr. Li keeps popping up. He told Kristof:
“They can keep closing sites, but they never catch up. You can’t stop the Yellow River from flowing, and you can’t block the bloggers.”

Put that on a T-shirt and wear it in the Forbidden City.

Kristof concludes:

China’s leaders decided years ago to accept technologies even if they are capable of subversive uses: photocopiers and fax machines at first, and now laptops and text messaging. The upshot is that China is much freer than its rulers would like.

To me, this trend looks unstoppable. I don’t see how the Communist Party dictatorship can long survive the Internet, at a time when a single blog can start a prairie fire.

: These movements and technologies need our support. That’s why I’ve been lambasting or lampooning Yahoo and Google executives over their China policies.

But at last week’s Hyperlinked Society conference, I spent a little time with people who know one helluva lot more about this issue than I do, including Xiao Qiang of the UC-Berkeley China Internet Project and Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices. I won’t attempt to say what they say for fear of misquoting them. I’ll just give you my own thoughts. First, I’ll try to capture the back-and-forth we see on China and the internet:

The company lines we keep hearing from those who do business in China are (1) that the Chinese people are better off with a crippled internet than no internet at all, and (2) that these companies need to follow local laws. The other line we sometimes hear is that the Chinese people don’t care about politics and don’t want or need these freedoms, but I won’t dignify that with a response.

The problem with hiding behind these company lines is simply that if you never say no to the Chinese government, they will keep doing what they do. Not saying no to them is saying yes.

Many of us wish these companies would take the risk of saying no when China’s dictators demand information that might send people to jail or cripple their services. But the companies and their defenders reply they these are businesses that have an obligation to their shareholders to make money; they can’t pull out of China or even risk having to. Some of us say in return that these companies need to have an ethical compass or else they are damaging not only their ability to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning but also their brands and reputations around the globe — and that is, indeed, a business issue.

But I think it is also up to us to put countervailing pressure, to give these companies cover. The problem in our own First Amendment fight against the so-called Parents Television Council and its lapdogs at the FCC and in Congress is that no one wants to vote in favor of the First Amendment when they can be accused of voting for smut. We need to give them cover; we need to demand our freedom of speech. At a much more urgent level, the same is true for internet companies doing business in China.

It’s fair to say that perhaps these companies should not be expected to do this on their own — to stand up to the world’s biggest dictatorship and their shareholders at the same time, just because they want to be decent. So perhaps it is up to us to put that pressure on by asking that they stand up for principle to protect their trusted relationships with us — their brands and businesses, in short. I’m not talking boycotts and nasty campaigns. Think of this less as an attack on the companies and more as a favor to them. We need to help them out by giving the a reason to stand up and have guts. I’m simply saying that when they try to say no to the Chinese dictators, they need a reason why — because of the pressure around the world supporting freedom of speech for everyone.

That means the first step is to state those principles. I think Amnesty International made a good first step at its Irrepressible.info:

I believe the Internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression. People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs online without fear or interference. I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression on the Internet – and on companies to stop helping them do it.