Friday, February 17, 2006

China, the US, Cisco, Yahoo, MS and Google?

The recent ruckus in Congress over tech companies Cisco et. al's involvement with China has me confused. There are several congressmen who have raked the tech company representatives over the coals for providing technology that enabled the strict social and ideological controls that China has placed over its citizens to be extended to the internet. I think it is a little hypocritical for our country to extend normal trade relations or most favored nation status (NTR/MFN) to China despite their failing to qualify for the standards for those relations. The NTR/MFN status would normally be denied based upon China's human rights and emigration policies but they are given a waiver based upon executive order on a yearly basis. One congressman went so far as to compare the companies' cooperation to IBM's cooperation with Nazi policies during WW2.

Now, I'm not going to make excuses for these companies. They do what they do to make money and for the most part are amoral. On the other hand, I think to criticize them for doing business with China after lowering the trade barriers is a little disingenuous. This is morally equivalent to beckoning a chained dog from right outside the arc of packed dirt that represents the length of his chain and then laughing when he's jerked back having reached the extent of the chain. If China is so evil (I think it is), then why are we doing business with them at all. Is it OK to trade with them or not? I would argue that despite the controls that these companies are helping put in place the access that it promotes is justified.

I'm going to make a little aside here. I was about to quote Stewart Brand by saying "Information wants to be free", but I wanted to check the attribution first. It turns out that my interpretation of Brand's intent was flawed. I'd always thought that he was describing the memetic nature of information. I was wrong. He was making a statement about the value of information. The full quote is:

"Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine---too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, 'intellectual property', the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better."

I was not aware of anything past the first sentence. His statement is insightful, but not appropriate to the argument at hand. Given that disclaimer, let me misuse his words. Information Wants To Be Free. Information Wants to Be Free. Information Wants To Be Free. The internet is a powerful medium. I believe that the internet is a useful tool to insure the freedom of information. The open access to information is a key in the search for truth. The more open that access, the easier the search for truth. So the restrictions placed by the Chinese government are ultimately counter to that search, but I believe that the greater good of access to the medium (though restricted) is much more valuable. Without that access, the search for truth and power and self determination are stymied. I'm of the opinion, where the internet is concerned at least, that limited access and unlimited access are or will ultimately be equivalent. Whatever barriers that are put in place to restrict access will ultimately be circumvented. That's just the nature of the beast. The flip side of that coin is that no access to the medium means no opportunities to circumvent the barriers. Example? North Korea. I also believe, that given the choice, most people will choose enlightenment over ignorance. Sometimes it is a painful choice to make but enough people will make the choice to make the difference. People just need to see that there is a choice to make.

What's the moral to the story? Make up your own.

UPDATE (2/19/2006): I just ran across this article and I think it demonstrates my point.


Matthew Iverson said...

I always sort of had that "information wants to be free" thing jangling around in my little bag of anti-DRM quotes, too. Now it makes a lot more sense put in context. I think that, more important than information, people want to be free. They want to be free and they don't even know it. So we have to free them, even if it means killing them in the process. USA! USA! USA!

Ray said...

But, I am le tired.