Fighting Censorship Through Sanctions

Ai Weiwei sits in his studio in mainland China, shut off from the rest of the world. We can't see him. He can't see us.

His blogs have been shut down. His bank accounts have been investigated by state security agents. Two of his Gmail accounts were hacked.

The artist tries to contact the outside world through blogs and social media. But his online activism is silenced, met by threats and violence--one police beating left him with a painful throbbing in his head.

Less than a year after the attack, Ai Weiwei was diagnosed with cerebral hemorrhaging and underwent emergency surgery.

His situation was explored in a recent documentary, Concepts of a Chinese Artist.

"I want to shake people up and remind them of what kind of society we are living in. What kind of justice system we have. And how police in China treat our citizens," Ai Weiwei said.

In December, Google announced that it was the victim of a highly sophisticated cyber attack originating from China.

"During our investigation into these attacks we had uncovered evidence to suggest that the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists connected with China were being routinely accessed by third parties," stated David Drummond, the company's Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer, in a statement posted on the company's official blog. "These attacks and the surveillance they uncovered [...] had led us to conclude that we could no longer continue censoring our results on"

This prompted Google's decision to stop self-censoring search results, an action that defies local Chinese censorship laws. Google's decision comes at no small cost--a 20 per cent market share and annual revenue between $250-300 million.

But completely withdrawing from the Chinese market leaves an attractive void for other U.S. and European search engines. To address this, Google's recent address to U.S. congress requested action to limit censorship.

"Governments need to develop a full set of new trade rules to address new trade barriers," said Alan Davidson, Google's Director of Public Policy, who believes censorship restricts free trade. This is a relatively new area of business and trade policies must reflect new technologies.

Trade policies, including possible sanctions, would be necessary to cajole competing companies to exit a lucrative market to ensure the free trade of information--and support of human rights.

The word "sanctions" seems to be synonymous with "ineffective" in recent memory.

Despite three rounds of sanctions--and likely a forth on the horizon, with the upcoming G20 Summit--Iran continues to push ahead with its nuclear development program. Likewise, we've seen similar results in North Korea. The elite find ways to circumvent the sanctions and access the products.

But if the U.S. government approved electronic sanctions prohibiting U.S. firms from facilitating censorship in China, perhaps we would see a change in the effectiveness of this approach.

Aside from Google, the major players self-censoring information are Microsoft and Yahoo!--American companies. Enforced by the U.S. government, these sanctions would be limited to a handful of easy-to-monitor companies.

One notable exception is Baidu, China's largest locally-based search engine. In order to prevent domestic companies from capitalizing on a vacant market, the U.S. government must couple sanctions with pressure on the Chinese government to allow the free trade of information.

Software programs developed by dissidents in China provide a means around government controlled censorship, but once past this "Great Firewall" users are met with a second barrier--companies outside China, like Microsoft and Yahoo!, self-censoring their own information.

"The anti-censorship software invented by Falun Gong is being widely used in China," said Dr. Yang Jianli, a Senior Fellow at Harvard University, and former Chinese political prisoner. It is the U.S. and European companies further impeding these dissidents from accessing information.

Yang argues that the U.S. State Department must act now to facilitate the movement toward providing uncensored Internet access to millions of citizens in Iran, China, and elsewhere.

"Decisive action by the U.S. government is needed to tear down this Berlin Wall of the 21st century."