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Policing the Thoughts of a Billion People

Yesterday, Reporters Without Borders released a copy of the verdict in the case of Chinese dissident Jiang Lijun, who was sentenced to four years in jail in 2003 on a charge of subversion, supported in part by email evidence provided by Yahoo! to the Chinese government.  Here is a PDF translation of the court document, and the press release from Reporters without Borders

Concurrently, the brouhaha over Skype’s joint venture in China, TOM Online, and their decision to filter text, continues to grow.  Niklas Zennstrom yesterday confirmed that TOM Online "filters" text, while offering the statement "One thing that’s certain is that those things are in no way jeopardising the privacy or the security of any of the users."

Skype Journal’s Phil Wolff wrote a lengthy list of questions for Skype.  The whole issue hangs, however, on what "filter" means.  Does it mean a client-side Net-Nanny like system which prevents access to certain types of content, and/or prevents the sending of certain kinds of text phrases, or is it something more insidious which eavesdrops on actual conversations?  Russell Shaw assumes it is the former, while Aswath Rao details how the latter could be built

Zennstrom himself seems to be saying that TOM Online does not eavesdrop on users conversations. One has to ask, however, how long it will be until the Chinese government insists? 

As odious as it is, Skype, Yahoo!, and others are right to continue their engagements in China.  Indeed, they have a duty to continue to provide Chinese citizens with all the technology that citizens of modern democracies have, and cooperate minimally, but as required, with the authorities.  One cannot police the thoughts of a billion Chinese citizens forever. 

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