Civil Liberties

Twitter Will Set Them Free

How profit-seeking businesses advance democratic principles in China


On his recent trip abroad, President Barack Obama declared that the United States could not impose its values on other nations. But what if we were actually complicitous in undermining our fundamental values elsewhere?

One could argue that American corporations, such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, would be abetting censorship if they acquiesced to China's recent demand that all personal computers sold in that country be equipped with software that allows government officials to block access to Web sites that disseminate "unhealthy information."

The software, called "Green Dam-Youth Escort"—in this case, "green" does not signify the innovative, virtuous, environmental kind of soft tyranny we like—is designed ostensibly to filter out sexually explicit sites, but in reality, it will allow China to monitor Internet use, ban political sites, and collect personal information.

Wouldn't these companies, in effect, be aiding the Communist regime in its attempt to gain unprecedented control of information on the Internet?

Yes and no.

This is not the first time American corporations have yielded to Chinese censorship demands. Several online search engines, including Google and Yahoo, already are complying with "censorship requests" from China—no searching for "Falun Gong" or "crackdown in Tiananmen Square"—and other similarly freedom-resistant nations.

The trouble for the Communist nation is that Internet users have rather effortlessly gotten around the "Great Firewall of China." And if history is any indication, ingenuity will prevail once more. If we've learned anything as a free people, it's that you can't keep the masses from their pornography—or, on occasion, even the truth.

But if we believe that the U.S. has no business imposing its values on other nations, why would we expect corporations to spread the good word?

Some critics have presented the issue as a straightforward choice between corporate "profits" and enlightened "principle." (Profit, predictably, being the immoral choice.) Which is technically true. But what if profit is the constructive way to advance our principles?

The 40 million personal computers sold in China last year, many of them in the hands of once-isolated people, will do more to liberalize that nation than any government sanction or well-intentioned protest we could concoct. When, after all, has any policy of isolation or trade restriction helped spread democracy or undermine tyranny?

It won't surprise onlookers that around the 20th anniversary of the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Internet users across China had problems accessing popular networking sites, such as Twitter, MySpace, Hotmail, Yahoo, and many others.

In areas all across China, these sites allow people to interact, exchange ideas and grievances, plan political opposition, or simply discuss frowned-upon topics. Across China, users openly complained and speculated about the reasons for the shutdown, which in itself is a sign of growing independence.

To combat this kind of Internet liberty, China's government utilizes more than 30,000 censors. It deploys unknown thousands of true believers, who troll Web sites and affix positive and fawning comments about the Communist Party on message boards and Internet discussions.

The more computers China has the more censors they'll need. The more computers the Chinese use the more difficult it will be to control the flow of information.

One would hope that American companies engage the Chinese government and do all they can to protest and avoid policies that undermine fundamental American values, such as freedom of speech, abroad. If their consciences won't let them do business in China … oh, whom am I kidding?

Selling the 298 million Internet users in China sub-par American computers is the best way to advance our values. Even better, we won't have to "impose" a thing.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his Web site at