China and the Internet: It's access, stupid.

Tomorrow belongs to me...

Representatives from technology giants Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Cisco Systems faced questioning at congressional hearings in Washington earlier this week

US lawmakers are increasingly concerned with the way in which companies from the Land of the Free cooperate with governments that don’t share the American way. To be specific, Cisco’s part in setting up the Great Firewall of China and moves by Internet companies Google, Yahoo!, and MSN to censor content from search engines and blogs in China are under scrutiny.

American companies are caught between the desire to expand and the need to abide by local laws and regulations in new markets. Google’s local version in France and Germany filters web sites that preach for racial hatred in accord with local laws. Even in the US, the law requires search engines to filter content from sites that breach copyright and intellectual property laws.

Chinese people today have access to a plethora of information, and hundreds of thousands of Chinese share their opinions online on topics that were considered taboo only a few years ago. Yes, some sites are blocked. Yes, some topics better be avoided. And yes, self-censorship is routine. But any tech savvy teenager could teach you a dozen ways to access a blocked web site, and, with all due respect, a news report about elections in America/Palestinian Authority or even the latest shenanigans of Brad and Jennifer advances the cause of freedom and normality much more than a photo of the Dalai Lama or the online manifesto of the FаLunGong.

The web, with or without Tibetan rebels or the BBC, is the main driver of change in China. Concerns should focus on the fact that currently only 110 million people in China have Internet access. This comprises the world’s second largest online market, but counts only for 10% of China’s population.

US lawmakers should keep that in mind when approaching China. It is necessary to set ground rules for U.S. companies operating abroad, but as far as China is concerned, the imperative should be to allow access to as many people as possible. After that, when 400 million Chinese citizens are online, leave it to the market to bring down the walls.

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