China has more people online than any other country. But its rulers are also world-class obstructors of the Internet, a practice sure to be under scrutiny during the Olympic Games, when foreigners used to Web freedom will visit Beijing.
How China treats the foreign press during the Games, and especially how it treats Chinese who help them, will be one story. But the big, ongoing story is how the government keeps access to the Internet under tight control and uses it to violate human rights.
Because of restrictions agreed to by American search engine companies – Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft – Chinese citizens can see only a portion of the Web visible elsewhere in the world. The censorship is aimed at topics that the government regards as threatening to its authoritarian rule.
The government also snoops on dissidents who use the Internet. It has imprisoned at least 49 "cyber-dissidents" for promoting democracy and freedom of expression online, says the group Reporters Without Borders. In a 2005 case, Yahoo China provided the government with information about the e-mail account of Chinese journalist Shi Tao. It led to his arrest and a 10-year jail term. Yahoo later apologized and has since sold a majority stake in Yahoo China to a Chinese firm.
Google and the other Internet companies fear losing access to the huge Chinese market if they don't bend to the government. In actions that must make the censors smile, they are blocking more of the Web than they need to, according to a study last month from the University of Toronto's Open Net Initiative.
Individually, the four top Chinese search engines – Google, Yahoo China, Microsoft, and Baidu, a Chinese company – blocked between 15 percent (Google) and 26 percent (Baidu) of a group of controversial sites. Yet they overlapped in blocking only 10 percent of the sites, showing that the government had issued no list of banned sites but left the companies to guess – and overguess – what might offend.
What can the US do about this? In the House, Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey has introduced a bill that would require search firms to reveal any request for information about users from countries known to abuse the Internet. Such information would go to the US Justice Department, which would decide if such actions represent political oppression or legitimate law enforcement. The US government also would be informed of key words or Web addresses that these countries censored.
The legislation, entitled the Global Online Freedom Act, has the backing of several human rights groups. But critics wisely question whether the US government ought to be the arbiter of which countries qualify for special watching and what site-blocking and search terms infringe on cyber-freedom.
A better solution would be a voluntary code of conduct among US search companies. But nearly two years of meetings among them has yielded no such pact.
But when the world's largest country with the most Web users tries to restrict this global network, it damages the whole Internet and sets a poor example, especially when China wants to show a new face during the Olympics.