China is the world’s second largest Internet market, and the aggressive efforts of U.S. Internet companies to gain a foothold there have put them in a position where they must weigh potential profits against high minded principles. U.S. lawmakers are now holding hearings to look at American Internet companies that are cooperating with Chinese censors. It should be noted that the lines here are not entirely clear: Yahoo, Microsoft’s MSN and America Online have complied with the U.S. government request that Google is now fighting, though no Internet company has been asked to make the kinds of concessions in America that China seems to be demanding.
Where you come down on this issue ultimately rests on whether you feel an Internet that is subject to government censorship is still one worth having. Censorship seems to be anathema to the very nature of the Web, but one could argue, as Yahoo has, that an Internet that has been somewhat compromised is still better than none at all. Do Chinese civilians really need to be able to search for the word “democracy” to make the Internet worth their while? Is the censorship worth accepting if it means allowing people access to even a small portion of the Internet’s vast resources? Or should U.S. companies refuse to comply with foreign regulations if it means they have to turn over user information and restrict free access to information?