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A tightening web?
If access to the internet superhighway was the first generation of the digital divide between the global North and South, and access to content via high-speed connection is the second, then impediments to the dissemination of content, whether through government censorship or corporate pay-for-play demands that result in different levels of access, is the third generation (3G) of the divide.
Structure has won a round against function, with the owners and controllers of the internet highway pipeline, whether the Chinese government on a national basis or internet network operators on a business basis, holding sway over the lords of content such as Yahoo, Google or Microsoft.
Critical Congressional hearings in Washington, DC in the first half of 2006 focused a spotlight on corporate complicity in censorship in China. Google fared worse in some parts of the media than its competitors Yahoo and Microsoft because of an apparent violation of brand identity embodied in their slogan 'Don't Be Evil'. Google co-founder Sergey Brin publicly acknowledged in June that the dominant internet company compromised its principles by accommodating Chinese censorship demands.47 'We felt that perhaps we could compromise our principles but provide ultimately more information for the Chinese and be a more effective service and perhaps make more of a difference', Mr Brin told reporters. 'Perhaps, now, the principled approach makes more sense.'48 Microsoft responded to the pressure and took small steps in connection with its testimony before Congress, announcing a new policy concerning responses to governmental requests for removal of content and user access. Critics pointed out that new policy does not stop the company from assisting governments in censoring and removing access to blogs, or in providing information on specific users.49 Microsoft and Yahoo had previously said in a joint statement 'they lacked the leverage on their own to influence world governments'.50
The implications of such behaviour by large, powerful companies casts a shadow beyond what may typically be considered corporate citizenship. For example, the Wall Street Journal called hypocritical claims by companies that more forceful resistance to human rights violations by China is not possible because the country's market is too big to ignore while at the same time 'protesting China's failure to protect intellectual property'. '[The Chinese government] might censor information that is vital to conducting business there.' What if the government doesn't want to let people know the banking system is weak?' said Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch. 'Today it's political censorship. Tomorrow, it's central-bank reserves.51
Another aspect of the 3G digital divide, pay-for-play demands for tiers of access, speaks to a less clear-cut, but more far-reaching, potential impact. The short-term issue may be telecommunication companies charging higher prices to companies such as Google and eBay-which generate the most dissemination of data-intensive applications such as movies and video games and internet traffic-to recoup the billions of dollars needed to upgrade their networks to handle the increase in such traffic. The longer-term issue may be whether economic activity and democratic debate are available at the same level for those with access.52
In fact, steps in this direction were taken by AOL to charge large mass emailers for a new 'Goodmail' certified email service which bypasses spam filters and offers guaranteed delivery directly into AOL customers' inboxes.53 A coalition with over 500 members, DearAOL.com, called the new service 'a threat to the free and open internet', and described 'pay-to-send' email as tollbooths on the currently open internet which demand 'protection money at the gates of their customers' computers' and constitute a tax on email and 'tiered services and dozens of middleman fees for every simple act of communication'. Coalition members include the AFL-CIO, Consumers Federation of America, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Craig Newmark (Craig's List), Defenders of Wildlife, Democratic National Committee, Friends of the Earth, MoveOn, Oxfam America and Working Assets.54
The role of technology in enabling participation in democratic discourse, or 'accessible democracy', was also raised at Google's 2006 annual meeting by Amnesty International, which has issued reports citing a dramatic rise in the number of people detained or sentenced-and in cases tortured-for internet-related offences in China.55 Adding to the glare of the spotlight, the NGO Reporters Without Borders released a report which labelled Yahoo as the 'Worst Search Censor in China'.56 China has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states in Article 19 that everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference; that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; and that this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his [or her] choice.57
Technology corporations have defended their practices in a strikingly similar manner, as embodied by Microsoft: 'Inthe case of China, we believe that despite the circumstances, the Internet has already transformed the economic, cultural and political landscape of China.58 This reflects the 'e-vangelical' approach of the internet generation, which believes the internet is an inherently positive force in the world. However, it does not reflect the emphasis on unbridled free markets and freely associating individuals which typified the early dot.commers. While dot.com investors remain supportive of business co-operation with, and facilitation of, government curbs on human rights, the positive promise of the internet may be broken.
47 'Google "Compromised Principles" in China, Founder Admits', South China Morning Post, 7 June 2006, as reprinted at asiamedia.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=47255.
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