Congress Interested in Google's, and Others' Investment in Chinese Censoring

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The Google-China saga took a twist yesterday as Google adjusted how its site works under the Chinese censor rules. And today Congress is getting interested in U.S. roles in Chinese censorship. So is China a no-go or a go-to business prospect?

On Tuesday, rumblings from within Google indicated it may be reconsidering its trick of redirecting Google China users to a Hong Kong server in order to work around censorship laws. The Chinese authorities have found another saber to rattle—Google's chief legal officer is noting that the Beijing powers are threatening to not renew the license that permits Google to operate any kind of Net-based business in China, thanks to the HK redirection that Google's still got in place. There's even some fuss about Google maps and revealing state secrets. The company is now trying a tweak that has the landing page for Google.cn hosted in China on a mainland server, but the outgoing search links still hooked to HK. It's not much of a concession, but it does reveal that the company isn't ready to make good on its threat and pull out of China totally—the business opportunities offered by the vast Net-hungry Chinese market are just too vast.

The Google-China saga has been brewing since December 2009 when an alleged Net hack hit Google, and was traced to multiple computers inside China. Google hinted at government involvement and threatened to de-censor its services in China, placing it in violation of the strict free-speech-stifling law. In March the situation came to a head as China severed access to the Chinese search systems, though Google tried a creative Hong Kong work-around—with some success. Then everything went ominously quiet.

But today the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission is holding an extremely timely hearing on Chinese "Information Control" antics and how it relates to U.S. investment. One angle that Congress is evidently interested in is if U.S. investment in Chinese business is actually playing a role in the state-sponsored censorship rife in the nation. Rebecca MacKinnon, a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton has written about the matter on her blog, and it's worth a read because MacKinnon is actually testifying before the Commission today on the matter of Google-rival Baidu's role in censorship, along with U.S. business inputs into censoring acts. One fact MacKinnon highlights is that much of the day-to-day work of censorship has been outsourced to the business sector, and U.S. firms have been "willing to fund Chinese innovation in censorship technologies and systems without complaint or objection."

If U.S. policymakers begin to get angsty about whether U.S.-based business are actively contributing to free-speech suppression inside China, who knows what twists the Google-China saga will be forced through next? But of course, it's not just Google's interests at stake here, and business in China is controversial for all sorts of other reasons—particularly at the moment. Just the other day electronics firm Foxconn, stuck in the middle of a multiple suicide scandal (that may or may not be true), announced that it may be relocating a huge factory inside China to try to resolve the matter. But its highest profile customer, Apple, displayed what some thought as cold feet on this news.

Doing business in China is attractive for all sorts of economic reasons, but is it going to get tricky politically and in PR terms for U.S. businesses to keep pouring money into the communist nation? Or is frustration at the overly abundant censorship and business-limiting shackles inside China itself going to fuel a push for relaxation of policies and a freer business environment—as MacKinnon suggests may also happen?

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