China's Skype surveillance isn't particularly surprising. What is surprising is that Skype is owned by Microsoft, and Microsoft is a founding member, along with Yahoo and Google, of the Global Network Initiative, an organization whose purpose is to develop best practices for working with authoritarian governments and to protect people's Internet privacy. Ethan Zuckerman is director of MIT's Center for Civic media. He says that the Global Network Initiative, or GNI, came about after a very troubling incident involving a Chinese journalist.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: It was founded very specifically in the wake of Yahoo's difficulties with the arrest of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist who was arrested using data that Yahoo's Chinese partner released to Chinese authorities.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me it all boils down to the China conundrum that we've struggled with since Nixon, whether you let a society run in isolation or try to walk it step-by-step into a democratic Western world. But Microsoft isn’t a government. It’s a company. Does that change the calculus at all?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: They see the services that they are providing as having immense value to people within China, and they would argue that, on aggregate, Chinese citizens are better having access to these powerful tools of communication than they were if those companies pulled out altogether.
BOB GARFIELD: Which was Nixon's rationale in opening China.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Sure. Now, the flip side to this is that these organizations also have users in the US, users in Europe who are alarmed when they hear a story like the one that Jeffrey Knockel has brought back to our attention about censorship of keywords within Skype chat. This is the situation that Skype has been dealing with since 2008, and they've not found a way to either end their partnership with TOM, the Chinese company that – that’s doing the censorship, or to decide that they're not gonna offer that text chat service in China. And to me, that does raise some questions about whether these discussions that are taking place at GNI, which are very important, end up, in some cases, being a delaying tactic, rather than making a difficult choice to either cut off a service or to take the human rights hit around it.
BOB GARFIELD: Apart from pulling out altogether, is there a half measure that the Global Network Initiative or anyone else has identified that can, you know, at least make the surveillance more transparent?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Absolutely. There are best and worst practices that you can take on. Google, when it was operating search engines within China, made sure that when they were forced to remove results, they stated at the bottom of the page that a number of results had been removed, which is significantly more transparent than simply removing those results and simply pretending those sites don't exist.
Another best practice was to recognize that there are certain services like search that are not especially sensitive and other services like email that are enormously sensitive, and that in the case of those very sensitive services, to ensure that the servers are outside of China so that they’re immune to subpoena or other pressure. Now, when Skype went into that joint venture, they did not undertake that best practice and, evidently at this point, they still have not made major changes on those fronts.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, if one were cynical, one could join or even cofound an organization like the Global Network Initiative and with one hand talk about seeking best practices for doing business with authoritarian regimes and, on the other hand, being entirely compliant and letting the surveillance go on virtually unmolested, which is to say a fig leaf or sort of human rights washing. Do I have any reason to be skeptical of Microsoft's motives here?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I have no reason to believe that Microsoft is acting in bad faith. Certainly, to the extent that I've been privy to discussions in organizations like GNI, there are really intense conversations within these large Internet multinationals about what you do in China.
What I would say is that I think it's really important that the general public, the users of these services, keeps a really close eye and keeps pressure on these companies and sort of says look, we’re watching. And if we’re not getting answers about this, we’re going to start asking questions about whether GNI is effective or whether it's a fig leaf.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Ethan, as always, thank you so much.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Always a pleasure, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Ethan Zuckerman is director of MIT's Center for Civic Media and cofounder of the citizen media organization, Global Voices Online. Microsoft declined to be interviewed but sent us this statement, quote, “In China, the Skype software is made available through a joint venture with TOM Online. As the majority partner in the joint venture, TOM Online has established procedures to meet its obligations under local laws. Even as a minority partner, we understand we also have responsibilities. Microsoft is working to adopt appropriate changes that can be made to address the issues raised.”