Should Search Engines Help China Filter & Track Searches?

Dan Solove points to this Salon article that reveals how Google, Yahoo and Microsoft help the Chinese government not only filter out search results that they want to censor, but also help track down the individuals engaging in criticism and dissent. From the article:

To conduct business in China, popular Internet companies Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have had to accommodate a regime that forbids free speech, bars political parties and jails journalists. This means filtering searches on their sites, censoring news and providing evidence in the trials of political dissidents — or risk having their sites blocked in China. Forced to choose between ignoring the world’s hottest market or implicitly endorsing a system of censorship that a recent Harvard study called “the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world,” the companies have decided to cooperate.

…A Yahoo search for “Taiwan Independence” will return only sites the government has approved. And this summer, Microsoft, which has more than 1,000 employees in China, began barring words like “democracy,” “freedom” and “human rights” from the titles that users gave their blog postings.

… In September, Reporters Without Borders revealed that Yahoo had supplied information used to convict Shi Tao, a journalist who used a Yahoo account to e-mail a description of reporting restrictions during the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre to a U. S.-based dissident group. After Yahoo linked the e-mail with Shi’s computer, he was convicted of revealing state secrets and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Dan asks the right questions in the face of such practices:

Should Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft be cooperating? Is business always business? Or should businesses refuse to cooperate with certain foreign legal regimes? If it is acceptable for businesses to cooperate, is there a limit to the level of cooperation that should be provided?

These questions don’t have an easy answer. Is it acceptable when Yahoo or Google help France and Germany filter out pro-Nazi websites? Hypothetically, would it have been acceptable for Yahoo or Google to have helped the Nazi regime in identifying Jews? Where should the line be drawn?

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