Posts about humanrights

And all that stuff

Some notes on the Fourth of July….

: I was upset that the new Superman now fights for, in Perry White’s words, “truth, justice, and all that stuff.” Yes, all that stuff that we hold so dear on this day.

Was this a crass business decision in the age of globalism? Was it American self-loathing? Was it a joke?

Yet, of course, the movie is really about the American way. The dramatic theme underlying the action revolves around Lois Lane’s disillusionment with Superman. She wins her Pulitzer prize — as they are won these days — arguing against the use of power with an editorial that announced we don’t need Superman anymore.

But, of course, we do. The question is, who is Superman? Superman himself wonders that and so he goes off for five years to discover not much. And we in America wonder that. We used to see ourselves as the superpower that came to the rescue. But now we’re bungling a war. It is becoming popular to vilify us. And, I’m horrified to say, Americans abroad are starting to masquerade as the nationalistic version of Clark Kent: Canadians.

Yet we live in an age when evil is cartoon-clear. The bad guy today is not some vague and shadowy bunch hiding under beds. The bad guy today is as clearly identifiable as a comic-book villian. Lex Luthor is Bin Laden.

Where is Superman when we need him? He used to be around here somewhere.

: As it turns out, the abandonment of the American way was no accident and no joke. The Hollywood Reporter talks to the screenwriters, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris:

“The world has changed. The world is a different place,” Pennsylvania native Harris says. “The truth is he’s an alien. He was sent from another planet. He has landed on the planet Earth, and he is here for everybody. He’s an international superhero.” . . . .

[T]hey penned their first draft together and intentionally omitted what they considered to be a loaded and antiquated expression. . . .

“We were always hesitant to include the term ‘American way’ because the meaning of that today is somewhat uncertain,” Ohio native Dougherty explains. “The ideal hasn’t changed. I think when people say ‘American way,’ they’re actually talking about what the ‘American way’ meant back in the ’40s and ’50s, which was something more noble and idealistic.”

Which is them saying that we’re not noble now.

While audiences in Dubuque might bristle at Superman’s newfound global agenda, patrons in Dubai likely will find the DC Comics protagonist more palatable. . . .

“So, you play the movie in a foreign country, and you say, ‘What does he stand for? — truth, justice and the American way.’ I think a lot of people’s opinions of what the American way means outside of this country are different from what the line actually means (in Superman lore) because they are not the same anymore,” Harris says. “And (using that line) would taint the meaning of what he is saying.”

The American way now taints movies. Every American should should be insulted that Superman is in such hands as theirs. If you think the American way needs updating and buffing up, what better way to do that than through an idealistic movie? But, no, now being pro-American — even at a time when America is attacked — us politically uncorrect.

: See this interview with Christian Cox, an American living in London, on the BBC web site.

She says the level of anti-Americanism she has experienced “feels like a kind of racism”.

“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for Americans, or me, I just want people to realise that we are dealing with hatred too.” . . .

Ms Cox, 29, says she has been called, among other things, “terrorist”, “scum”, “low life”, and feels that she is constantly being held to account for the actions of President Bush and for US foreign policy. . . .

“But some people just fly off the handle without even talking to me – it’s as if they had been waiting to run into an American all day to let their feelings out,” she says.

To avoid confrontations she says she lowers her voice on the Underground and in pubs.

But in one incident an older man asked her directly if she was American.

“When I said yes he said: ‘I just want you to know that I think you are the poorest people I have ever met in my life’ – meaning we were low-life.

“I said I was sorry he felt that way, but that I disagreed.”

The man started shouting obscenities at her group. The row developed into a brawl and Ms Cox suffered a black eye as she tried to pull two people apart.

“After that I cried for two days, then booked a flight back to the States. I felt so hated, I needed to be with people who loved me.”

Some friends now advise her to tell people she is Canadian, to deflect potential abuse, an option she calls “sad”.

Yes, it is a form of racism. It’s not cool to announce a dislike of races or religions or nationalities — except, these days, America.

: It’s enough to make us feel German.

Thanks to an accident of junior-high teacher politics (nobody liked the French teacher), I ended up studying German and, as a result, came to visit, enjoy, and do business in Germany. Often when this comes up in conversation in America, there’s an awkward moment when it becomes clear that others think this makes me weird or worse and sometimes I find myself in the position of needing to defend Germans.

But a few weeks ago, when I was in Munich, I heard Americans say that they, like the American in London above, feel the need to hide their nationality for fear of attack or shame. They start saying ‘eh’ and ‘oot.’

At the same time, Germany, which for obvious reasons has tried to avoid pride and patriotism for 60 years, is suddenly rediscovering the swollen chest thanks to the World Cup. They produced a booklet listing 250 reasons to love Germany. They bought ads on my PATH trains saying that we should be friends. They held an adopt-a-German tour.

Yet while I was there, I also went to a movie about the dark days of the Stasi infiltrating friendships and offices and marriages in East Germany, leading to betrayal, imprisonment, and even death. That same is still fresh, still to be grappled with.

Who’s the Supermensch?

: Yesterday, I picked up The Times of London and read an essay — A Call for Clear Thinking — by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch MP who challenged Muslims to join the civilized order. In it, I see more stirring words about freedom than in Superman or any Independence Day picnic. It’s also timely coming just a few days before the first anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London. She writes:

After the carnage of the terrorist bombings in London on July 7, 2005, Tony Blair defined the situation as a battle of ideas. “Our values will long outlast theirs,” he said, to the silent acquiescence of the world leaders who stood alongside him. “Whatever (the terrorists) do, it is our determination that they will never succeed in destroying what we hold dear in this country and in other civilised nations throughout the world.”

By defining this as a battle of values, Blair raised the question: which values are at stake? Those who love freedom know that the open society relies on a few key shared concepts. They believe that all humans are born free, are endowed with reason and have inalienable rights. These governments are checked by the rule of law, so that civil liberties are protected. They ensure freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, and ensure that men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, are entitled to equal treatment and protection under the law. And these governments have free-trade practices and an open market, and people may spend their recreational time as they wish.

That is what I call truth, justice, and all that stuff. Perhaps she is the Superwoman we’ve been waiting for.

: Yet in our own Congress, our lawmakers do not understand all that stuff. Be very afraid that in multiple votes lately, a majority of both houses has cast off the First Amendment to vote in favor of censorship on our airwaves and for restricting the right to burn the flag. It’s so obvious: by trying to protect the symbol, they defeat what that symbol stands for — the very essence of truth, justice, and the American way.

Happy Fourth.

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.

Google and China: On second thought….

Well, give a point to Google. Sergey Brin at least acknowledges that its actions in China conflict with the company’s — let alone this country’s — principles (my emphasis):

Google Inc. co-founder Sergey Brin acknowledged Tuesday the dominant Internet company has compromised its principles by accommodating Chinese censorship demands. He said Google is wrestling to make the deal work before deciding whether to reverse course.

Meeting with reporters near Capitol Hill, Brin said Google had agreed to the censorship demands only after Chinese authorities blocked its service in that country. Google’s rivals accommodated the same demands – which Brin described as “a set of rules that we weren’t comfortable with” – without international criticism, he said.

“We felt that perhaps we could compromise our principles but provide ultimately more information for the Chinese and be a more effective service and perhaps make more of a difference,” Brin said. …

Google’s China-approved Web service omits politically sensitive information that might be retrieved during Internet searches, such as details about the 1989 suppression of political unrest in Tiananmen Square. Its agreement with China has provoked considerable criticism from human rights groups.

“Perhaps now the principled approach makes more sense,” Brin said.

The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders said Tuesday that Google’s main Web site, http://www.google.com , was no longer accessible in most Chinese provinces due to censorship efforts, and that it was completely inaccessible throughout China on May 31.

Brin said Google is trying to improve its censored search service, Google.cn, before deciding whether to reverse course. He said virtually all the company’s customers in China use the non-censored service.

“It’s perfectly reasonable to do something different, to say, ‘Look, we’re going to stand by the principle against censorship and we won’t actually operate there.’ That’s an alternate path,” Brin said. “It’s not where we chose to go right now, but I can sort of see how people came to different conclusions about doing the right thing.”

Well, that beats saying you’re not sure what you’d do about Hitler. At least someone is talking about principles.

I noted the irony the other day that we’re whining about net neutrality here so we can download movies faster and the Chinese are worried about net neutrality so they can speak without ending up in prison. Why was Brin in Washington? To testify for net neutrality here.

Popping the Gubble

Glenn Reynolds wonders whether Google has peaked. Hard to say. It has the clear advantage of weight. But that’s not the point, really. It’s that not that it is big, it can disappoint many by its actions — in China, regarding news sources, and so on. Can a giant still be loved?

: And the related discussion about Yahoo in China continues. See more on Fred Wilson’s blog. And Michael Parekh objects to the tone of that discussion in the comments here. He says:

It’s when commenters like “Christian” on Jeff Jarvis’s post get personal as in this comment on Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel shows:

“Bottom line is Terry Semel is a plain fool.”

Utterly irresponsible and uncalled for comment, in my opinion.

If you’re going to have a debate, do so on the merits or de-merits of the issue. The moment the discourse slips into personal insults, the referee should call the player off the field.

For the record, I think it’s meaningless to rant about select internet companies’ behavior in places like China without thinking about the global context of these issues.

To complain about what Yahoo! and Google are doing there misses the larger point of what ALL multi-nationals from ALL countries doing business in China are doing to compete and succeed for their shareholders.

To pick one or two companies out for complaint seems grossly unfair and besides the point.

In my humble view companies like Yahoo! and Google have done noting wrong, and in fact are doing ALL the people of China a world of good by making better information and communications tools available.

They should be applauded.

I replied:

With all due respect, I think it is just as unproductive to dismiss the discussion as “meaningless” it is to dismiss Semel as a “plain fool.”

The important question here is about limits. Are there limits to what a company should do following the laws of the dictatorship in China? That is what we are trying to figure out. That is an important discussion to have.

So it’s legitimate, I think, to try to find that out via other examples. Would you say it’s OK for a company to have done business in apartheid South Africa, for example? Is it OK for a company to hand over users for exercising what all civilized nations recogize as the human right of free speech if that speech violates the propagandistic stranglehold of a dictatorship?

Just because other companies do it, that doesn’t make it OK, I’m sure you’d agree.

Let us, indeed, have this discussion on the merits.

The China problem

Fred Wilson and I see things differently regarding Terry Semel’s responses to questions on China. Fred says:

…Semel stated Yahoo!’s position that it was better to engage with China and push them at every opportunity to become more open than to leave the country entirely. It was a good position, in my opinion, and he made it well.

But then someone from the audience got up and asked a question. The question was what would Yahoo!’s position be if it was the Nazi Germany and Hitler instead of China. Semel said something to the effect that “I wasn’t even alive then, I don’t honestly know what we would do”.

Wrong answer. As Joe at Techdirt explains, when Hitler the Nazis come up, the best thing to do is end the discussion. Semel was clearly annoyed with the question but he should have refused the answer it instead of saying anything. Because that was a “why do you beat your wife” kind of question and there is no good answer to it.

This brings me to a larger point. Running a technology company in the Internet age requires a lot more political skills than it used to. The Internet is way more than a technology and companies that participate in its commercial development are in the political space as much as the tech space.

So Terry and his colleagues had better get used to questions like this and get some help in answering them (or not answering them).

I said in Fred’s comments:

No, Fred, he damned well should have answered it. This was not an effort to play the Hitler card. This was an effort to find some context in which Semel would finally address the ethical issues he has been ducking in regards to Yahoo’s behavior in China.

What are his limits? That was the question they were trying to get to. And clearly he still does not have an answer, though he has been asked essentially this question innumerable times (I heard him flub it less spectacularly only the week before at a New Yorker event and last year at Web 2.0). He keeps repeating the company line (which you report here) and then runs on empty.

So pick another example: Would Yahoo have done business in apartheid South Africa? That’s a legitmate question, I’d say. Don’t like historical hypotheticals? Fine. Would Yahoo do business in Saudi Arabia and allow women to drive the mouse and protect the identity of dissidents? Would it hand over the IP and identity of a blogger in Iran, where bloggers also get arrested for their speech?

Yahoo has choices. They can say: Yes, we’ll do business anywhere, business for business’ sake, which is what I hear Semel saying when he speaks as he does. Or he could refuse to do business in countries under threat from dictators. Or he could at least put up a fight when the dictators dictate.

But this is by no means just a political question. And it is not even just an ethical and moral question — though it is, Lord knows, that. It is very much a business question. For this shows the character and soul of Yahoo. And people will start deserting it if they do not trust it and do not like it and what it stands for (aka, its brand). I find boycotts troubling but I’ll still note that the National Union of Journalists has now called for one against Yahoo because of its policy on protecting free speech. That is a matter of business.

In this country, we’re screaming about net neutrality and trying to find ways to stop or boycott restrictive phone companies. That, unfortunately, looks like such trivial whining compared with the restrictions put on Yahoo users in China. They can find themselves in a Chinese prison for 10 years just for speaking.

We can judge the company that abets that crime accordingly. This is not just an issue of corporate responsibility — animal testing and all that. When we put our communications in the hands of a company, we put trust in that company. If we cannot trust that company, then we should not work with it. That is about business.

Semel does not have good and politic rhetoric because he does not have a good and convincing answer about Yahoo’s policy and moral responsibility to its users and to the principles of free speech and a free internet.

I signed up in support of Amnesty International’s pledge of internet freedom at Irrepressible.info. So perhaps that’s the question the next person should ask Semel; I’d be happy to. Will he agree to this:

“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.”

That’s a fair question, eh? I wouldn’t trivialize the question asked of Semel. I’d see the question behind it, which remains unanswered.

: LATER: In the comments, Christian says:

Bottom line is Terry Semel is a plain fool. Even so, I still have to agree with yahoo’s decision to stick with the China market regardless of the restrictions they are bounded too. A limited internet is better than no internet or even worse a 100% controlled internet.

Good and important point. We can agree or disagree about Yahoo’s stance that some internet in China is better than no internet. That’s a legitimate argument. What’s troubling is that we have not heard a statement of principles here, other than Semel being unhappy. That’s what I think is missing here.

: Check out the comments on Fred’s site as well.

Chinese excuses

Terry Semel keeps digging his hole deeper and deeper… pretty soon, he’ll reach China.

At the haughty D conference, he was questioned about Yahoo and China. This from the WSJ.com blog:

“I continue to be pissed off, outraged, and feel very very bad about it,” Mr. Semel said.

Well, I’m sure that makes the poor sap stuck in a Chinese prison for 10 years because he used Yahoo mail feel much, much better.

“But you have to follow the laws of the country you’re in.”

Enough with that company line. Would you have done business in South Africa under apartheid and run no pictures of black people? Would you have handed in Jews in Nazi Germany? Oh, but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Someone asked that incredibly obvious question and he had an incredible answer.

One attendee asked Mr. Semel if Yahoo would have cooperated with Nazi Germany the same way it has with China. His response: “Yahoo has a basic obligation not to have a point of view on basic content, and to present content … and aggregate things and to allow people to make their own choices. I don’t know how I would have felt then.”

Good God, man! You don’t know how you would have felt? Who gives a damn about your feelings? This is about human rights. It’s about ethics. It’s about morality. It’s not about content. But now that you’ve brought it up, that’s ridiculous, too. Of course, you have a point of view on content: You buy some and not others. Dig, dig, dig. The next spadeful:

He added, “I don’t feel good about what’s happening in China today. I don’t feel good about some of the things that happen in our own country.”

So in one breath, he has managed to equate America with Communist China and Nazi Germany. Oh, I’m sure some flack will say he was taken out of context. The best way to fight that is to take yourself out of the context of trying to justify supporting dictators.

Semel also said:

Mr. Semel went on: “I don’t think any one company is going to change a country, and I dont think any one industry is going to change a country. “…

See Amnesty International’s call on companies as well as countries to support the cause of freedom.

Still, Mr. Semel said progress is being made, noting that the Chinese know more about American culture than ever before, thanks in no small part to the Internet. “To me, it’s about keeping the information flowing. Little by little, we start to bring about change.”

The Neville Chamberlain of the internet.