Jimmy Wales on Smart Censorship

Question: Is there a smart way to censor content?

Jimmy Wales:  Well, yeah, I mean, not that I would encourage this, or support this, but China is increasingly able to filter on keywords.  Filter just the page they don’t like.  And you know, without supporting  that, I would still oppose it.  I would still say that’s a lot better than what they’re doing right now, in being completely ham-handed and blocking whole swathes of the internet, because you don’t like one page is really not good for China.  It’s not good for the economy of China, for the people of china.  And so that’s a very sort of bureaucratic or technical criticism of the current regime, as opposed to a human rights-type criticism.  But I always want to emphasize when I say this that I would still make the human rights criticism.  Well, they could improve things a lot.  It’s actually an interesting question, I think, is what are the ethics around this for Western companies, for US companies?  Because China’s not the only one.  There’re lots of countries around the world who filter the internet and filter certain keywords, certain pages.  And for me, it’s very questionable when we see US companies who are collaborating with that kind of thing.  So just to sort of address the big one, which is Google is in China, Yahoo! is in China, so what do we say about that?  Well, what I say about that is going in and dealing with information in China right now is very similar to doing business in apartheid in South Africa.  There’s something really wrong.  There’re human rights violations going on.  And people used to argue back and forth about whether it was better to boycott or to constructively engage.  In other words, to be there, but operate under a certain set of principles that would encourage change and positive things to happen.  I think that both sides of that argument can be made by reasonable people.  I tend more to the boycott side of things, but I accept and understand that, of course, there are legitimate points on the other side, and it actually can help in a lot of cases.  So Google basically makes that constructive engagement argument.  To say, “Well, look.  The Chinese people are better off with us being there trying to be a positive force for change than if we simply boycotted the country.”  Okay, I accept that, right?  That’s a legitimate thing to say.  But I think what we should do is hold Google’s feet to the fire and say, “Well, what are you doing there?  What’re you doing to help?”  And Google has some answers for that.  I mean, one of the things that they do is they don’t store any user data within China.  They keep all user data.  They don’t have Gmail servers in China, things like that.  That’s so that they can’t be compelled to cough up people’s information in China.  Well, that’s very important.  There’re people in jail in China because Yahoo! has coughed up information about them.  Yahoo!’s answer is, “Well, we have to follow the law in China.”  My answer is, “Yeah.  Sorry, that doesn’t cut it with me.”  There are things that you could do that would take some courage and that would maybe cut into your profit in China a little bit, and you should be doing those things.  And actually, I make that argument not just from a moral or ethical point of view, but just from a hard nose business point of view.  I think if you look at the way the general public looks at the Google brand and the Yahoo! brand, this is one of the components, right?  And I think Google’s brand took a hit when they went into China.  People were really not so comfortable with that.  But even now, I think people would say, “Well, at least nobody’s in jail because of Google in China.”  And well, it’s just a different approach, so.

Recorded on 4/30/08

Keywords, keywords, keywords.

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