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Summary:

Google has had to change the way its Chinese website operates, after the government there threatened to remove the company’s licence. But one expert in China says the real problem is Google’s competitor, Baidu, and the fact that its ongoing censorship is backed by U.S. investors.

While Google continues to try and maintain a foothold in China — it was recently forced to change the way its Chinese website operates, after the government threatened to remove the company’s license — one expert in Chinese censorship says the real problem is actually Google’s competitor, Baidu. Baidu is working closely with the Chinese government to monitor and censor users, and U.S. investors and advisors are partly to blame for backing the company, says Rebecca MacKinnon, the co-founder of Global Voices Online and a former fellow with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

MacKinnon testified today before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission at its hearing on “China’s Information Control Practices and the Implications for the United States.” In a blog post, she described her testimony and also posted a PDF of what she planned to tell the commission. In effect, she argues that by financing Baidu — which has an estimated 63 percent of the search market in China — and allowing it to continue collaborating with the Chinese government, U.S. investors are setting a bad example and making it harder for that country’s technology industry to resist government pressure to censor and monitor users.

The American investment community has so far been willing to fund Chinese innovation in censorship technologies and systems without complaint or objection. Under such circumstances, Chinese industry leaders have little incentive and less encouragement to resist government demands.

MacKinnon also describes how the government’s behavior towards Google — as well as its recent release of a white paper praising the use of social-media tools such as as Twitter (which China routinely blocks) — is an exercise in a new strategy she calls networked authoritarianism. In addition to well-known tools of censorship such as the “Great Firewall of China,” MacKinnon says, there is also a coordinated process of delegating censorship to the private sector, while appearing to be open to new tools and Internet services. This is the system that Baidu is a key player in, she says.

MacKinnon notes in her testimony before the Economic and Security Review Commission that Baidu has two U.S. directors on its board (they are William Decker, a former partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Greg Penner, a partner with a California investment firm called Madrone Capital Partners), and that “U.S. investors provided much of Baidu’s
startup capital [and] U.S. institutional investors own significant stakes in the company.” Among those institutions are mutual funds such as Fidelity Management and Morgan Stanley Asset Management.

Baidu also recently got a $50 million investment from Providence Equity Partners, backers of the streaming-video service Hulu, to start its own Chinese version of the video site. MacKinnon says that she isn’t advocating that U.S. investors pull out of China or stop investing in companies there, just that investors “should be clear about what kind of innovation they are financing.”

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Post and thumbnails courtesy of Flickr user exfordy

  1. abouttime.com Wednesday, June 30, 2010

    About time that you figured out what is going on here. No incentive for these investors to back out because as long as the baidu-china inc collaboration continues, the more powerful baidu becomes leading to a higher stock value. The original investors knew well before baidu’s ipo that China would NEVER allow an outside search engine to dominate. NEVER. This is common knowledge.

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  2. Many people are investing in censorship in China, because when money is involved ethics go out the window. The comment below is just typical – China would never allow a foreign company to dominate, and this is just meant to be accepted as ok. It’s jingoism.

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    1. abouttime.com Thursday, July 1, 2010

      @xiaomoogle: It’s meant to be accepted as OK as long as some outside party makes a LOT of money. But if everyone were to lose money, ethics would come back through the window, albeit for the purpose of trying to make money.

      Ethics only comes into play only if it leads to profits. Can’t make money ethically? Throw out ethics! Jongoism screwing everbody? Bring back ethics. In other words, money/profit is the goal and any behavior is acceptable as long as it supports this goal.

      Why do you think the guys on wall street ruined the entire economy? because they could make a lot of money even if they failed.

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  3. In my opinion, the Great Firewall is pure protectionism and I’m surprised that China hasn’t already been brought to the WTO.

    If you wanna see which websites are currently blocked in China, check out http://www.greatfirewall.biz

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  4. Any more Cold War ideology you care to revive?

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