So what do recent events in China tell us about the power of information technology to transform repressive societies? The Internet's liberating potential was on display last month when the truth about a deadly school explosion spread across Chinese chat rooms, disproving official denials of responsibility and forcing Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji into a remarkable public apology.
But China's handling of the spy plane incident paints a different picture. By controlling coverage and blocking access to foreign news sites, the Chinese government ensured that its version of events was the only version most Chinese heard. Ironically, the government ended up censoring chat rooms to tone down the anti-American rhetoric its own propaganda had inspired.
All we know for sure is that the new technology will make a huge difference to China's future. It may empower ordinary people, but it may also endow authorities with a new tool to monitor private speech and manipulate public opinion.
And among outsiders, the companies pioneering the information revolution in China will have a great say in deciding the outcome. To maintain their credibility as agents of change, these companies can no longer argue that their mere presence in China will guarantee openness. The private sector will have to turn to Beijing and say, in effect, "Mr. Jiang, tear down that firewall."
A few small, innovative companies, such as California-based SafeWeb, are helping by developing software that Chinese computer users can use to get around government controls. But most companies with investments in China -- though they lobby the U.S. government each day against restrictions on Internet speech -- have been unwilling to defend their principles directly to Beijing. Last year, Human Rights Watch asked several foreign companies developing China's Internet to intercede with the government on behalf of Huang Qi, a Chinese citizen arrested after criticizing human rights abuses on his Internet site. Thus far, they have not done so -- though with Huang Qi still awaiting a verdict in his case, it is still possible to weigh in.
Other companies have openly supported repressive policies. Last month, Beijing bent rules to give Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. a stake in its telecommunications network, following a speech by Murdoch's son -- who heads his father's Asian operations -- denouncing the Falun Gong as an "apocalyptic cult."
Speaking out against human rights abuses would be good corporate citizenship and sound corporate policy for companies that depend on the free flow of information. But information companies have an even more fundamental responsibility not to be complicit in the suppression of speech. Unfortunately, most foreign firms have been willing to oblige Chinese government censors by censoring themselves.
As Hurst Lin, an executive with Sina.com, a Chinese language Internet portal based in Sunnyvale, Calif., recently explained, "The first rule we take is that we only work with state-sponsored media. . . . We actually do not have any, how shall I say, censorship issues because the content has already been cleared."
In part, this reflects a cultural difference between old and new media. For example, the Asian Wall Street Journal, a newspaper owned by Dow Jones Inc., is famous for its honest reporting in the face of pressure from Singapore. In contrast, SOHU.com, a Chinese Internet portal whose leading investors include Dow Jones, Intel Corp. and Goldman Sachs, greets visitors to its chat room with a reminder that "topics which damage the reputation of the state" are forbidden. It then states, "If you are a Chinese national and willingly choose to break these laws, SOHU.com is legally obliged to report you to the Public Security Bureau."
Of course, foreign Internet and media companies in China face extraordinary pressure not to offend the government and little countervailing pressure to practice abroad what they preach at home in America. That should change, and it may change, for as China enters the World Trade Organization there will be even greater outside scrutiny of the role foreign investment plays in its democratic development.
The information industry can still argue it is a force for freedom in China, but to do so convincingly, it should learn a lesson from another industry few people associate with a commitment to human rights. Last year, seven of the world's leading oil and mining companies developed with nongovernmental organizations and the U.S. and British governments a voluntary set of principles to make their operations consistent with international human rights standards. If such old economy companies as Shell and Chevron can agree on their responsibilities in countries such as Nigeria and Angola, surely the champions of free speech in the new economy can do the same in China, in the Middle East and everywhere free expression is threatened.
Tom Malinowski is Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch.