Let a Thousand Filters Bloom

In 1949, when George Orwell wrote his dystopian novel “1984,” he gave its hero, Winston, a job at the Ministry of Truth. All day long, Winston clips politically unacceptable facts, stuffs them into little pneumatic tubes, and then pushes the tubes down a chute. Beside him sits a woman in charge of finding and erasing the names of people who have been “vaporized.” And their office, Orwell wrote, “with its fifty workers or thereabouts, was only one sub-section, a single cell, as it were, in the huge complexity of the Records Department.”

It’s odd to read “1984” in 2005, because the politics of Orwell’s vision aren’t outdated. There are still plenty of governments in the world that go to extraordinary lengths to shape what their citizens read, think and say, just like Orwell’s Big Brother. But the technology envisioned in “1984” is so — well, 1980s. Paper? Pneumatic tubes? Workers in cubicles? Nowadays, none of that is necessary: It can all be done electronically, especially if, like the Chinese government, you seek the cooperation of large American companies.

Without question, China’s Internet filtering regime is “the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world,” in the words of a recent report by Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The system involves the censorship of Web logs, search engines, chat rooms and e-mail by “thousands of public and private personnel.” It also involves Microsoft Inc., as Chinese bloggers discovered last month. Since early June, Chinese bloggers who post messages containing a forbidden word — “Dalai Lama,” for example, or “democracy” — receive a warning: “This message contains a banned expression, please delete.” It seems Microsoft has altered the Chinese version of its blog tool, MSN Spaces, at the behest of Chinese government. Bill Gates, so eloquent on the subject of African poverty, is less worried about Chinese free speech.

But he isn’t alone: Because Yahoo Inc. is one of several companies that have signed a “public pledge on self-discipline,” a Yahoo search in China doesn’t turn up all of the (politically sensitive) results. Cisco Systems Inc., another U.S. company, has also sold hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment to China, including technology that blocks traffic not only to banned Web sites, but even to particular pages within an otherwise accessible site.

Until now, most of these companies have defended themselves on the grounds that there are side benefits — a Microsoft spokesman has said that “we’re helping millions of people communicate, share stories, share photographs and build relationships” — or on the grounds that they can’t control technology anyway. A Cisco spokesman told me that this is the “same equipment technology that your local library uses to block pornography,” and besides, “we’re not doing anything illegal.”

But as U.S. companies become more deeply involved in China, and as technology itself progresses, those lines may begin to sound weaker. Over the past couple of years, Harry Wu, a Chinese human rights activist and former political prisoner, has carefully tracked Western corporate cooperation with Chinese police and internal security, and in particular with a Chinese project called “Golden Shield,” a high-tech surveillance system that has been under construction for the past five years. Although the company won’t confirm it, Wu says, Cisco representatives in China have told him that the company has contracts to provide technology to the police departments of at least 31 provinces. Some of that technology may be similar to what the writer and former businessman Ethan Gutmann describes in his recent book, “Losing the New China: A Story of American Commerce, Desire and Betrayal.” Gutmann — whose account is also bitterly disputed by Cisco (“He’s getting a lot of press out of this,” complained the spokesman) — claims to have visited a Shanghai trade fair where Cisco was advertising its ability to “integrate judicial networks, border security, and vertical police networks” and more generally its willingness to build Golden Shield.

If this isn’t illegal, maybe it should be. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the United States passed a law prohibiting U.S. firms from selling “crime control and detection” equipment to the Chinese. But in 1989, the definition of police equipment ran to truncheons, handcuffs and riot gear. Has it been updated? We may soon find out: A few days ago, Rep. Dan Burton of the House Foreign Relations Committee wrote a letter to the Commerce Department asking exactly that. In any case, it’s time to have this debate again. There could be other solutions — such as flooding the Chinese Internet with filter-breaking technology.

Beyond legality, of course, there’s morality. And here the judgment of history will prove more important than whatever Congress does or does not do today. Sixty years after the end of World War II, IBM is still battling lawsuits from plaintiffs who accuse the company of providing the “enabling technologies” that facilitated the Holocaust. Sixty years from now, will Microsoft, Cisco and Yahoo be doing the same?

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