Hu Jintao and Bill Gates will have had a lot to talk about Tuesday, when the Chinese president visited Microsoft's Redmond campus.
With the mainstream Chinese media heavily censored, the Internet has become a vital outlet for independent journalism, critical writing and information. The authorities are ruthless in their suppression of criticism of their rule in any medium. China has jailed more writers and journalists than any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Fifteen of the 32 journalists in prison in China in 2005 wrote for the Internet. Very often they are charged with violating national security or subversion laws for daring to raise a critical voice.
Censorship in China is nothing new, but the growing cooperation of U.S. technology companies in China's repressive policies is.
On Feb. 15, a congressional subcommittee summoned representatives from Microsoft, Cisco, Google and Yahoo to Capitol Hill to sharply reprimand them for cooperating too closely with Hu's crackdown on China's rising tide of Internet writers and journalists. Microsoft associate general counsel Jack Krumholtz, along with his industry colleagues, dutifully laid out the dilemma they face: Cooperate with China's repressive demands, or risk losing a foothold in the world's most promising Internet market -- more than 110 million Chinese are online and the number is steadily growing.
Microsoft confronted that dilemma in late 2005, when the Chinese government requested that it censor blogger Zhao Jing. On Dec. 30, with no prior warning, Microsoft pulled the plug on Zhao's site, which was hosted on MSN Spaces. The silencing came after Zhao wrote about the government's removal of top editors at the Beijing News.
A storm of criticism persuaded Microsoft to alter its policy. The company now says it will still shut down blogs in China when told to by the government, but the sites will continue to live on in a cyber no-man's land outside China, where their authors will not be easily able to update them.
Microsoft's limited change of heart indicated that it, like the other companies, had underestimated the public-relations backlash they would take for acquiescing to China's censorious demands.
With reporters and other writers often posting news banned from publication or broadcast inside China, the Chinese government has built the world's largest system of monitoring and censoring the Internet. Authorities have relied on the expertise of many multinational information and technology companies to aid those efforts. Microsoft has previously come under fire for agreeing to block the use of words like "democracy" and "human rights" on MSN Spaces.
But Microsoft is not the only culprit. Yahoo provided Chinese authorities account-holder information used to imprison journalist Shi Tao, who is now serving 10 years in jail for trafficking in state secrets. Shi's "crime" was to use his Yahoo account to e-mail instructions from the central propaganda department to an overseas Web site about coverage of the anniversary of the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. When asked about its role in revealing Shi's identity to the police, Yahoo said it was simply complying with local law.
And "Don't be evil" Google, which opted for compromise instead of confrontation when it bowed to Chinese pressure by offering a censored version of its search engine, has vigorously defended its business decision.
"I think it's arrogant for us to walk into a country where we are just beginning to operate and tell that country how to operate," Google CEO Eric Schmidt told reporters in China this month, when he announced the creation of a Google-financed Beijing research center.
At the time of the February House hearings, a first draft of the Global Online Freedom Act was put forward. Officially, GOFA seeks "to promote freedom of expression on the Internet, [and] to protect United States businesses from coercion to participate in repression by authoritarian foreign governments."
The bill is sure to go through many revisions as it seeks wider, bipartisan support in Congress. But GOFA, or legislation like it, might be an idea whose time has come. When the U.S. Internet executives testified at the February House hearing, they suggested that they might be amenable to such legislation.
On April 14, Bill Gates put forward a similar opinion in an interview with the Financial Times: "I think something like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act has been a resounding success in terms of very clearly outlining what companies can't do and other rich countries largely went along with that. Clearly people like ourselves are glad to go along with whatever reasonable things get laid down."
Discussion and the legislative process could be an important step in the right direction. But of the five journalists sentenced or jailed so far this year in China, three were targeted because of their Internet activity. We have asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to raise the issue of press and Internet freedom when President Hu and President Bush meet on Thursday in Washington. Gates and Microsoft officials should do the same.
Hu's visit to Redmond reflects the link between global economic growth and the global flow of information. As both sides strive to make the most of the promise of international cooperation and investment in the technology sector, they must also work to ensure that the right to freedom of expression remains an integral part of that discussion.
Ann Cooper is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based nonprofit organization promoting press freedom worldwide. She is a former correspondent for National Public Radio who covered the former Soviet Union and Africa.