China, Freedom, and the Internet
Let the games begin! The Olympics in Bejing have begun and Tibet monks aren’t the only protesters – the media is angry too. While Chinese citizens may not have freedom of the press or Internet, but their Olympic guests expect it.
And to be sure, the media was promised they would have full access to web sites. But reports are that not only are sites being blocked but that the government is monitoring Internet activity.
The impending Olympic games have increased questions about Internet censorship in China, especially after Chinese officials tried to block journalists there for the games from accessing certain sites, even after the Chinese government assured reporters they would have full freedom to search the Internet, unlike its citizens.
Sites like FreeTibet.org, Amnesty International, Radio Free Asia, the BBC in Chinese, were blocked. And it’s not just specific sites – search engines are jumping in to assert their role in issues of freedom and human rights.
The top three US search engines drafted policies about how they’ll deal with blocked content and censorship. Microsoft writes (this goes to a PDF file on the LA Times web site): “We agree that Internet communications companies can and should play a valuable role in advancing the achievement of human rights, including freedom of expression.”
It’s always a careful dance – because each wants marketshare in China – a large and growing market. According to research firm IDC, China’s Internet user population is expected to grow to 378.9 million by 2011. Online advertising was US$637.4 million in 2006, and is projected to grow to reach US$4.328 billion in 2011 (according to “China Internet Economy 2007-2011 Forecast and Analysis,” Doc # CN187103P, January 2008).
Baidu.com is China’s number one search engine and the issue of freedom and competition affects how it competes. In the last quarter of 2007 Baidu had 73.6 percent of search engine traffic in China, and 60.8 percent of the search engine marketing spend (source: iResearch). While the Chinese search engine may censors sites, it doesn’t block illegal content…like music downloads.
It’s tough to compete against Baidu which grants free downloads to just about any song you can hear of – regardless of copyright. Google is taking the high road (and avoiding lawsuits) by launching its own music search site google.cn. The downloads are DRM-free but the selection is only of legal downloads – which certainly limits the selection.
I don’t recall an Olympics that has focused so much on freedom generally and especially how it plays out online. It certainly is a culture clash – with the culture of the Internet (which is still the wild west in many regards) and the Chinese government (which is known for being repressive). It’s all playing out as the world looks on.