Survey finds mixed feelings on Web censorship

The study’s author found the results ‘disturbing’

Americans don’t seem to be too upset with the idea that the People’s Republic of China is censoring Internet content perused by its residents using the Google, Yahoo and MSN search engines.

In a recent study of 1,056 people in the U.S., the Ponemon Institute LLC, an independent research group in Elk Rapids, Mich., found that 47% of the respondents said search companies shouldn’t let governments restrict their residents’ online content searches; 40% said search engine companies should follow the laws set by each country. Another 13% were unsure.

Larry Ponemon, founder and chairman of the institute and a Computerworld columnist, said he is surprised by the results.

“I’m really intrigued by censorship because here we create this huge Internet, then some countries want to decide who sees what,” he said. “I would have expected more people would think that censorship is a bad thing. I think people just don’t understand these concepts.”

Also disturbing, he said, is that the results were roughly equal. “The fact that people don’t feel more strongly [about censorship] is disturbing,” Ponemon said. “It’s hard to understand how people rationalize it.”

He noted that respondents who didn’t oppose censorship said the Chinese government could use more restrictive Internet content providers if U.S. companies don’t follow their laws -- something Ponemon said could cause more harm to Web surfers in China.

The study comes as the three popular Internet content providers are expanding operations in China -- prompting the Chinese government to censor some of the content offered locally, including limits on certain search terms, articles and blogs.

Fifty-four percent of respondents said that despite the censorship, it’s better for Chinese residents to have access to Internet content from Google, Microsoft and Yahoo even if it's restricted.

On another issue, 48% opposed a single, global standard that would prohibit any country from censoring Internet users; 40% said that would be acceptable. Of those who opposed censorship, 56% said Internet content providers should create the standards, 21% said an independent third-party agency should do it and, 11% said a coalition of governments should take the lead.

Earlier this year, Mountain View, Calif.-based Google announced that it would launch search services in China that would censor results deemed sensitive by the Chinese government (see ”Google to launch censored results in China”).

The Google site, Google.cn, tells users that a search has been blocked because it is politically sensitive. Pornography will also be blocked, as it is in several other countries.

Microsoft Corp. has been criticized for censorship in China, and Yahoo Inc. came under fire late last year for turning over e-mails to Chinese authorities that led to a 10-year prison sentence for a local journalist.

All companies offering Internet services in China must comply with local laws or face being shut off by authorities in Beijing, who also monitor data crossing international communications networks.

Google has operated a search engine aimed at users in China from the U.S. for a while, but decided to open a server center inside China to speed up searches, since Chinese government firewalls and censors mean download times from outside the huge country tend to be slow.

Last month. U.S. lawmakers ripped Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems Inc. in House committee hearings for allowing the Chinese government to censor the work done by the companies (see <”Lawmakers scold tech companies for China censorship”).

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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