Mark Brandon is the Managing Partner of First Sustainable (, a registered investment advisory catering to socially responsible investors. In addition to Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), he may opine on social venturing, microfinance, community investing, clean technology commercialization, sustainability public policy, green products, and, on occasion, University of Texas Longhorn sports.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Lying Down with Dogs, Waking Up with Fleas
Human Rights Activist Shows Evidence of Tech Firms' Complicity with China's PSB

In dramatic testimony to congress, representatives from Yahoo (YHOO), Google (GOOG), Cisco (CSCO), and Microsoft (MSFT) were hauled before congress to explain complicity with Chinese censoring practices. Uniformly, the companies expressed revulsion at the idea of cooperating with Chinese authorities but said it was necessary nonetheless to get a foothold in the world's largest market. Google's line of reasoning: some freedom is better than none. Cisco's: They sell the same routers in China as they do everywhere else and they can't be held responsible for how it is used.

Shortly after this display, human rights activists were allowed to counter. Harry Wu, Chinese dissident and torture survivor, showed particularly damning evidence that while Cisco's routers were the same, they are marketed and implemented differently. Most large scale deployments of communications infrastructure come with either paid-for or built-in training from the company that sold it. Holding up a Cisco-copyrighted publication on how to train the Chinese police, Wu likened Cisco's actions to giving them a pistol.

The question is more than academic. China employs tens of thousands of internet police, and has imprisoned tens of thousands of internet dissidents. It is safe to assume that some of them were either executed, tortured, or "re-educated" through hard labor. Wu relayed a story of how a friend accessed prohibited sites from an internet cafe, and was arrested when the police showed up within minutes. That kind of technology is only available thanks to American ingenuity.

Stateside, the actions could and should constitute a violation of US law. Legislation enacted after the Tiananmen Square incident prohibits American companies from selling crime control equipment to the Chinese. Wu testified that a US manufacturer of handcuffs is prohibited from selling to the Chinese government, but that hardware and software deployed to censor and track its citizens for the purpose of quelling dissident behavior has so far escaped the definition of crime control equipment.

History shows us that technology does not exist in a vacuum. How technology is used is more important than the technology itself. IBM punchcard technology helped Nazi Germany raise its extermination of Jews to industrial scale. The rifle helped Britain subjugate native people in Africa. More recently, P2P software has aided and abetted the widespread theft of copyrighted music. Technology vendors must take it upon themselves to at least attempt to prevent technology's use from being used for evil purposes.

These companies want us to believe that they can either comply with government requests or not do business at all. As was stated by the congressional panel and human rights activists, they can always negotiate. The Chinese need US technology. Homegrown technology is nowhere near the level of its US counterparts. They can and should negotiate from a position of strength.