Why American tech companies betrayed me, not China

American technology companies are helping China censor the Internet. I am angry and disappointed — probably more than the Chinese people actually affected. Yet, in a world full where corporate amorality is often taken for granted, why does this bother me so much? I’ve been trying to understand the reasons for my anger.

The remaining wisps of my youthful idealism are largely responsible. I started using commercial online services in 1992, and I started building websites in 1994 when I was in grad school. The Internet’s promise as a publicly accessible and democratizing mass medium hypnotized me and dictated the course of my career, into the technology industry, to Singapore and then to China.

The story of the technology industry’s moral collapse before the gleam of Chinese gold is the story of my commercial coming-of-age. The reason why I am so disappointed by the concessions of Microsoft, Cisco, Google and other complicit companies is that these are the companies of my generation. In my naïve heart of hearts, I hoped they would be different. Different from the oil companies that we somehow naturally expect to do business with sordid governments and wallow in environmental depredation. Different from old industrial giants, the car makers and manufacturers that we linked with rust-belt smokestacks, layoffs and economic decline. Different from the defense companies that were happy to sell weapons to our despotic allies. Different from everything that had come before.

It didn’t help that I was deeply immersed in the utopian fit of the technology bubble. I was so steeped in the rhetoric of the unstoppable, transformative power of the Internet that I internalized those beliefs and carried them even after the once bright-eyed startups auctioned the last of their Italian furniture. But technology companies still do their best to keep these fantasies alive. To this day, they market to us in the lexicon of freedom and transformation.

Where do you want to go today? asked Microsoft, suggesting that it could be anywhere you want, and never hinting that they might choose to keep some destinations off limits.Any time, any place, any device, they said, but not any word, they neglected to add.

Do no evil, lectured Google. The first line of their mission statement: Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.Universally accessible. That’s a nice idea. I wonder if it would work, now that we know Dan Gilmore was wrong all those years ago.

Our culture drives us to set high standards for corporate integrity and to give back by using our resources for a positive global impact, says Cisco, in explaining their corporate citizenship. But some parts of the globe are impacted more positively than others.

As a spin-doctor for technology companies I have written words like these myself. I, above all people, should be cynical about them. But I always carried that core of idealism with me. The Internet would be different, I thought to myself, and the people who had founded technology companies, many of them from my cohort, would somehow bring a different set of values than business had previously known. These were the companies of my generation. I had forgotten the core of greed and shallowness that lurked behind the technology industry’s evangelical mask in the terrible years of 1999 and 2000, when we all piously awaited the digital Rapture.

It was foolish, of course. The system is what it is, and it exerts its own terrible, transformative power, even on the most noble of companies. I had ridden one of those companies myself, a once promising venture in Singapore that crumbled from the inside as we succumbed to our own avarice and desperately pushed numbers around to please investment bankers with fast smiles and empty eyes. In the end we were unemployed, poor and bitter, but wiser. Or so we thought.

Technology entrepreneurs told us they would transform the world, and they were right. It has been a miraculous decade, and I wouldn’t change what the Internet brings me, especially here in Beijing, so far from my friends and family. But when we heard “transform the world” we only saw the good implied in that statement. Any technology brings its dark side, and we have spent the last five years discovering the Internet’s teeth. A tool for opening minds can be a weapon for closing them, and the arms merchants can turn out to be people we thought we knew.

So we confront the uncomfortable question of how we expect American companies to represent “our” values. By this, I mean the noble American ideals that we casually throw around in conversation but which are so fiendishly tricky to nail down in practice: freedom, democracy, human rights. The same words that vanished from MSN Spaces in a cloud of dark irony. The depressing reality is that public corporations, as much as they have their place, generally make dismal ambassadors for these ideals. It’s not because they’re evil, or because they are run by bad people. They’re not. It’s simply that the incentives the system creates lead in a direction where idealism is hard pressed to follow. But that doesn’t make the disappointment less bitter.

Meanwhile, the Chinese will manage without our hand-wringing. They can use the proxies if they want, choose to avoid MSN Spaces, cheerfully internationalize despite the best efforts of the CCP. They’ll wrestle with the problems in their own way. They might discover that there are places besides the Internet where interesting ideas can flow more easily. And if the climate in the US was ever to change, we might someday discover the same thing.

And that’s why I am so sad, and why it doesn’t matter whether the Chinese themselves care about this or not. It wasn’t about China’s expectations. It was about my own. In the end I wasn’t angry because technology companies had betrayed China. I was angry because they sold out the promise that I fell in love with twelve years ago. They betrayed me.

Some notes:

Several recent events made me want to write this. The first is a tightening of control domestic websites and blogs by the Chinese government, most recently with the MII’s website registration act. This is part of a general trend that has also affected mainstream media. (Both of those links from the invaluable Danwei.org, and see also this good storyfrom the UK’s Guardian via Howard French’s “A Glimpse of the World” blog.)

The second event is the renewed vigor of the Chinese government’s censorship of foreign blogging engines, with Typepad the most recent in a string of victims. The third is the outing of Microsoft’s entirely voluntary attempts to placate China’s censors in advance by preventing the use of the words “freedom”, “democracy” and “human rights” in the titles of posts in the China version of their Spaces blog engine. While the blocking of Typepad has been noticed mostly by bloggers themselves, Microsoft’s move was widely reported and generated scorn and outrage. (Wired; BBC; Financial Times, etc.) Rebecca MacKinnon haswritten a good piece on the overall situation for Yale Global, and it has been picked up by several newspapers. She’s also explored the Cisco situation in some depth.

The entire trend is part of a worrying regression by the Hu Jintao government (here analyzed by Philip Pan of the Washington Post), long suspected of a somewhat less progressive outlook than that of Jiang Zemin (and there’s an alarming statement). The combined effect has been to call scrutiny to the complicity of American technology companies in China’s strengthening censorship apparatus. We should keep that issue alive.

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