Wednesday, November 7, 2007

In the Land of the 800-Pound Gorilla

Everyone knows the joke:

  • "Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep?"
  • "Wherever it wants to."

This is the fundamental subtext behind the "humiliation theater" that Tom Lantos staged yesterday in bringing Yahoo! Chief Executive Officer Jerry Yang and General Counsel Michael Callahan before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the presence of Gao Qinsheng, mother of imprisoned Chinese journalist Shi Tao. However, just as the act of humiliation was provoked by the consequences of disregarding morality in favor of technology and finance, so should the spectacle itself be viewed in terms of the consequences it engenders. A first step in that direction was reported by P. Parameswaran for Agence France-Presse:

After the hearing, the Yahoo executives met at a congressional office with Gao and the wife of another cyber dissident, Wang Xiaoning, jailed also after Yahoo allegedly turned over information on him.

The first meeting between them followed suggestions by lawmakers that Yahoo settle the court cases the dissidents' families had brought against the company.

"It is clear that Yahoo was interested in dealing with the issue in a more forthcoming way," acknowledged Morton Sklar, the lawyer for the two jailed dissidents, emerging from the meeting. He did not give details.

Whether these three paragraphs are about substance or style will only be determined by what happens next on both sides of this story. However, Reporters Without Borders apparently sees this affair in the same light that I threw on it yesterday, that of the big stick that China now wields to get whatever it desires. This was also part of Parameswaran's report:

Some 52 people are currently in Chinese prisons for expressing themselves too freely online, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

"Just five years ago, many people thought Chinese society and politics would be revolutionized by the Internet, a supposedly uncontrollable medium," the group said.

"Now, with China enjoying increasing geopolitical influence, people are wondering the opposite, whether perhaps China's Internet model, based on censorship and surveillance, may one day be imposed on the rest of the world," it added.

Aside from China, Reporters Without Borders' list of 12 other "Internet enemies" that "systematically violate online free expression" are Egypt, Belarus, Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

This is why the gorilla joke is relevant:

  • "What is the global policy on free expression through the Internet?"
  • "Whatever China wants it to be."

Furthermore, the last paragraph in the above AFP excerpt indicates that China will have an international contingent of supporters for "whatever it wants" in this matter.

Paul Saffo has always been fond of saying that the future always arrives late and in unexpected ways. He may not have anticipated that this would apply to the impact that the Internet would have on communication on a global scale, but it looks like his rule is going to apply. The future has not yet arrived; but the signs are that it is not going to conform to the expectations of those once-and-future evangelists of openness, whether the text of their sermon is about the "open enterprise" or the "global town meeting." More than ever we are haunted by the title of that movie that Marco Bellocchio released in 1968, China is Near. After all, now that ecologists have a model of how long it takes the emissions Chinese of coal-fired plants (still uncontrolled in the interests of further growth) to cross the Pacific and enter the atmosphere (and water) of states like Oregon, Washington, and California, how can it not be near?

I had a taste of the Chinese version of free expression when I lived in Singapore. I did not particularly like it, but I had to acknowledge that my personal tastes had to accept the fact that I was living in someone else's country by my own choice. So I respected the laws and was never really oppressed by them. I also never had to encounter a situation in which someone close to me was victimized by those laws the way Shi Tao was by the letter and the practice of Chinese law. I have no idea how I would have acted had I been in such a situation, so I know how foolish it is to speculate on such matters when dealing with the normative practices of another country. Sklar is probably right that Yahoo! is sincere about dealing with this issue to the extent that its own turf is at stake, but this is where Lantos' castigation comes into the limelight again. Can a major global enterprise that hires strictly on the basis of outstanding technological and financial skills truly confront an equally major global question that requires taking a moral stand and then acting on it? Personally, I find it hard to answer this question in the affirmative; but, given how much other bad news there is in the world, I would really like Yahoo! to prove me wrong!

As an afterthought, I just saw that an extended Reuters story dealing with moral issues surrounding the issues of open communication and terrorism has been picked up by Ziff Davis and released on its CIO Insight site. This is definitely not the sort of reading matter one tends to associate with a CIO; but then there is no guarantee that those who go to this site will read (let alone reflect on) the full content of this particular report. Nevertheless, someone at Ziff Davis made an editorial decision appropriate to our times. We should be thankful for that gesture, however small it may have been!

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