Tunisia, Egypt, Libya … Popular discontent, fueled by Internet access, has resulted in the fall of several regimes. But the demand for democratic reforms is reaching far beyond the confines of the Middle East. There have been already protests in Vietnam and Central Asia, and in March Francis Fukuyama pondered whether autocratic China might be the next to fall.
He wrote: “The Chinese government is also more clever and ruthless in its approach to repression. Sensing a clear threat, the authorities never let Western social media spread in the first place. Facebook and Twitter are banned, and content on websites and on China-based social media is screened by an army of censors.”
In an effort to stem the tide, Chinese officials ordered the country’s Internet companies to tighten control over allegedly subversive web content in order to, “prevent the spread of fake and harmful information.” Some of those companies didn’t bother to wait for the government. Taobao, a major Chinese-language website for online shopping, similar to eBay and Amazon, has taken the initiative by instructing merchants who use its service to cease selling software that enables Internet users to evade web censors.
The problem is that Taobao is owned by Alibaba, and local internet firm Yahoo owns a 43 percent stake in Alibaba. In other words, Yahoo has a great deal of say in how Taobao acts. What does Yahoo say about the Chinese government’s efforts to monitor internet usage? Why is a company in which Yahoo has a stake initiating efforts to support internet censorship by a non-democratic regime?
This hardly compares well with Google, which shut down its Chinese search engine in Beijing over demands on its search engine results. At the time, Google’s move received the support of numerous human rights organizations, including, for instance, Amnesty International. “Amnesty has consistently called on companies operating in China to stop collaborating with the Chinese authorities’ censorship requirements, and to respect the right to freedom of expression for web users in China,” Amnesty’s UK Director Kate Allen said.
This was echoed by Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists, who said, “We welcome this stand against censorship and hope that all internet companies operating in China take a similar principled position.” The Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington called it “a substantial win for global internet freedom.”
It remains to be seen whether Yahoo will follow Google’s lead and tell Alibaba what it thinks of censorship.