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should US computer companies censor in China?

Thursday 30 July, 2009

I read with interest this article in the Chicago Tribune by David Greising Computer-makers should help skirt China’s censors. It brings up a tough issue to which there are no easy answers.  Greising scolds US computer makers for acquiescing to Chinese demands that they provide software that censors access to anti-Chinese government websites.  He criticizes computer manufacturers with sizable operations in China for caving in too easily, ostensibly in search of profits, as opposed to confronting the government & potentially putting future revenues at risk.

I certainly don’t endorse Chinese censorship, nor American companies giving in to that extortion.  However, the alternative of exiting is not a viable option either.  Standing up for principle is 1 thing, but retreating when 1 can still have sway doesn’t make sense either.  American computer companies have more power when they are actively engaged.  If they leave the market, competitors from other countries move in to replace them.  The voice they had with the government is extinguished & they play no role in future decisions.  Lambasting American companies for pursuing profits makes no sense-it’s what aggressive companies do.  My question is how much are these companies going to lobby the government from the inside, behind closed doors?  That’s where they can wield far more influence & perhaps change policy going forward.  The best thing for American computer companies to do is build profitable businesses to give them the economic clout to get a seat @ the table when these kinds of discussions take place.

There are greater risks in China.  The impetus behind the government’s mandate is to maintain control of information.  At some point, that may become fruitless.  They are trying to grow the economy to keep as many people as possible content with their lives so that they can stay in power.  There may come a point where the people gain enough power that the government plays a much smaller role than it does now.  How that dynamic plays out will determine tons for China’s future.

Whether or not information is censored is a vitally important issue.  Information feeds the digital economy today.  The wars these days are economic, & they’re fought with data, which when it’s free-flowing, provides ample ammunition for all sides.  We can’t endorse closing off that information flow, but need to remain engaged to make sure it doesn’t get any worse.

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