Recently, China's authoritarian government issued a new directive, requiring all personal computers sold after July 1 this year to have a special Web filter known as "Green Dam." The nominal reason for the filter is to prevent access to pornographic sites, but the list of blocked sites would be determined on an ongoing basis by authorities, and it has been widely assumed that the filter would also be used to restrict access to information critical of the Chinese government. The "Green Dam" directive, whose implementation was delayed this week by Beijing, would have joined China's extensive existing restrictions on Internet access, which are often referred to collectively as the "Great Firewall of China."
The requirement that companies install software which they know will be used to frustrate free access to information put vendors in an ethical dilemma. Does compliance with the directive make them a party to the suppression of free speech? If so, does it matter?
The case invites comparison to the 2005 incident in which the government demanded that Yahoo China provide information to help them identify the person who sent an e-mail critical of the authorities. The information Yahoo provided ultimately led to the arrest and imprisonment of dissident Shi Tao. Yahoo claimed in its defense that it is obliged to obey the law, but this stance found much resistance. Some believed that given the comparatively direct involvement in jailing the dissident that they should have refused the order, but many found that more scandalous than the compliance itself was its passive nature. Yahoo didn't even make even a nominal effort to try and evade the order, for example by dragging its feet, seeking a legal loophole, etc.
However, the current case is far less severe for a number of reasons. For one thing, the computer makers will not be directly involved in the censorship. They will only be providing the software, and the authorities will be the ones deciding which sites will be censored. An additional consideration is that the software has legitimate as well as illegitimate uses. Many countries have laws restricting access to various kinds of pornography; the laws in Europe are among the strictest in the world in some respects; China is not unique in seeking to limit access to this kind of material. So the web filters are not an inherently anti-democratic program, even though it is fair to assume they will be used for that purpose.
But that doesn't mean that the computer manufacturers should do nothing. Between outright refusal to fulfill the directive and deferential compliance there is an intermediate option: protest. It is possible and often obligatory to make your voice heard, and to make it clear that you are an unwilling participant in the process of depriving Chinese citizens of knowledge they need to obtain a government with some degree of accountability to the people. Even putting civic considerations aside, these citizens are the customers of the vendors, and their interests should be foremost in the seller's concerns.
This is in fact the route chosen by the manufacturers. They protested through prominent business associations, which collectively signed on a letter of protest to China's premier late last week, and indirectly through US trade officials and other official channels. The respectfully-worded letter enunciated manufacturers' concerns about protections for their customers.
So far the protest has borne fruit, and the Chinese authorities have put off the July 1 deadline indefinitely, pending reexamination of the program.
Merely providing the Chinese authorities with a tool which they will then use to stifle access to information is not a categorical ethical breach, especially given that it is a tool with legitimate uses as well. So total refusal is not called for. But acquiescence is also not a good option, given the near certainty that the tool will also be used to restrict political freedoms. The appropriate step in my opinion is the one that was taken: a carefully worded protest meant to express disapproval with the directive and to do whatever is reasonably in the manufacturers' power to restrict or limit it.