The US Department of State had a conference on global internet freedom over a week ago on January 30th. I found out about it when I picked up the blog post by Yahoo! VP & Deputy General Counsel, Michael Samway in the company’s official blog, Yodel Anecdotal. The descriptions of the first few panelists were quite matter-of-factly but the post got somewhat emotional when it’s time to mention the representative of Amnesty International. I contacted AIUSA staff by email and found out the AI rep was T. Kumar, AIUSA’s Advocacy Director for Asia and Pacific.

Over my years volunteering for AIUSA, I heard a lot about Kumar and I kind of idolize him (other members and staff might feel the same way). I met him in person the first time at an Amnesty training several months ago and he was really nice about telling me and another volunteer about how to work with various government officials. He has a lot of experience in government relation but he didn’t have a hint of arrogance. It’s unexpected because it’s easy for experienced activists to act arrogant.

Less than a month later, I got to spend a little more time with Kumar at an Amnesty conference. On the last day of the conference, I ran into him at breakfast and we had some interesting discussions. He knows a lot of people in the Asian authority circles but he had never heard of MySpace which was mentioned by one of the high school students at a workshop the day before. On the other hand, he bought his plane tickets to the conference from AirGorilla which I’ve never heard of. We got into some random discussion about various internet know-how, such as getting your own domain name, web hosting, etc. It was a really nice time and on the previous two days, he kept making jokes so as to scare me of thinking I was going to lead a workshop by myself.

My interaction with Kumar does not match up with Samway’s blog post which described Kumar’s presentation as a “tense moment” and that he was “accusing” Yahoo! and other companies for internet censorship. Does that imply the companies are not engaging in internet censorship? All the public and private sources are pointing to yes, the companies are doing it. If Kumar was simply stating the facts, then Samway got a little too worked up over, in his words, a “re-packaged” discussion.

Samway argued that the companies do not know the real identity of a person based on the user ID when local authorities request for more information related to the ID. In the case of Chinese journalist Shi Tao, the court verdict (PDF file in both Chinese and English) listed evidence from Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd that included the IP address, exact date and time, and the phone number and address of Shi Tao’s work place where he sent the “offending” email. Among the many pieces of evidence listed in the court verdict, the information provided by Yahoo is the only piece that pointed to an exact location. Although the court could have convicted Shi Tao without Yahoo’s assistance, the evidence against him was much more concrete when it included the specifics of his office.

The next argument in the blog post was the one we’ve heard over and over this past year: providing some access to information is better than none. But based on the New York Times article about the rise of Chinese home-grown internet companies such as Tencent (which owns the popular site QQ), Sina, Sohu, Netease and Baidu, the American companies are missing the market. The article mentioned Google has been losing search engine market share to Baidu. Is it because Google – China provides similar search results as Baidu when both of them abide by the filtering requirements of the Chinese authorities? Yahoo! – China is kind of the same story. If the American companies are losing market share, why continue providing similar products? Would a search engine that does not censor be a more competitive product in China?

To strengthen his argument, Samway nicely pointed the readers to a Wall Street Journal article published on January 27th written by Emily Parker (note that a direct link to the article was not included in the blog post but a link to Parker’s profile was given) that concluded the internet allows people to express themselves in private and although the Chinese authorities are quick to remove any content deemed inappropriate, people with similar political views are still able to locate each other and feel the comfort that they are not alone. This argument applies to those who are aware that their version of the internet is censored. Last night, I learned that many people in China are not aware of the problem. A friend who selected to retire in Europe came to my local Amnesty meeting last night. After the meeting, he told me he has been maintaining contacts with a few people he got to know from his numerous travels in China. His friends didn’t believe anything he said about internet censorship. He suggested a few websites for them to try and then they discovered the truth.

The State Department conference’s conclusion focused on collaboration among all parties involved in the issue. That means none of the companies will stop their practice of censorship alone. For a country that embraces pioneers, we should applaud the existence of Chinese Wikipedia and its unfiltered content while both English and Chinese versions of Wikipedia are blocked in China.

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