The discussion on internet censorship has really heated up this year, especially when Amnesty International began to raise the case of Shi Tao whose email – sent through his Yahoo! account – landed him 10 years in prison. Human rights activists bombarded Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft with confrontations of all forms about their practices of censorship in China. The companies bounced back with their corporate style PR claiming that providing some form of access to the internet in China is better than none. A recent BBC News article examined whether the criticism was justified. The most outrageous comment I found in that article was (about the number of people imprisoned in China due to their postings on the internet): “fifty seven people arrested in a country of 1.4 billion is not very much.”

That’s like assuming the entire population of China has access to the internet. Similar to how American companies race to sell their products in China because they think there would be 1.4 billion people buying their products. While it’s hard to tell exactly how many Chinese citizens can afford the luxury of American goods, there are certainly many groups within the entire population of China would not experience US products and services any time soon. For example:

On the other hand, China benefited greatly from manufacturing American products for decades. Home-grown companies (such as Ningbo Bird and Lenovo) are now ready to compete for a piece of that “1.4 billion” market and even taking bites out of the US market. The magic number seems smaller now, isn’t it?

The new debate though is whether Westerners have exaggerated the effects of internet censorship in China. It seems that ordinary Chinese could care less about it until a family member gets into trouble with the authorities. I think the business practices of the US companies and Chinese attitude towards internet censorship should be treated as separate issues. What those companies do is simply wrong. My argument would be that they could do it in China so they can do the same in other countries. As for the lack of interest with the issue in China, we need to examine the different environments of freedom of expression. Information control is the norm in China and some journalists even practice self censorship. And for Westerners, individualism is key so freedom of expression is like a birth right.

All in all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be the only standard we use regardless of culture. As a human rights activist, I believe that the violation of one person’s rights is already too many and we should continue to speak out for all those imprisoned due to censorship of all forms.

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