April 20, 2006

FCC Looking Into Pay-For-Play [8:51 am]

FCC Launches Payola Probes of 4 Radio Giants [pdf]

The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday launched formal investigations into pay-for-play practices at four of the nation’s largest radio corporations, the biggest federal inquiry into radio bribery since the congressional payola hearings of 1960.

Two FCC officials with direct knowledge of the matter confirmed that the agency had requested documents from Clear Channel Communications Inc., CBS Radio Inc., Entercom Communications Corp. and Citadel Broadcasting Corp. over allegations that radio programmers had received cash, checks, clothing and other gifts in exchange for playing certain songs without revealing the deals to listeners, a violation of federal rules.

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NYTimes Preview of Coming Article on Google & China [7:56 am]

This is a fascinating article, summarizing a great deal of information about how the “Great Firewall” works and how Google operates within China: Google in China: The Big Disconnect

It is not hard to see why Lee has become a cult figure for China’s high-tech youth. He grew up in Taiwan, went to Columbia and Carnegie-Mellon and is fluent in both English and Mandarin. Before joining Google last year, he worked for Apple in California and then for Microsoft in China; he set up Microsoft Research Asia, the company’s research-and-development lab in Beijing. In person, Lee exudes the cheery optimism of a life coach; last year, he published “Be Your Personal Best,” a fast-selling self-help book that urged Chinese students to adopt the risk-taking spirit of American capitalism. When he started the Microsoft lab seven years ago, he hired dozens of China’s top graduates; he will now be doing the same thing for Google. “The students of China are remarkable,” he told me when I met him in Beijing in February. “There is a huge desire to learn.”

[...] Yet Google’s conduct in China has in recent months seemed considerably less than idealistic. In January, a few months after Lee opened the Beijing office, the company announced it would be introducing a new version of its search engine for the Chinese market. To obey China’s censorship laws, Google’s representatives explained, the company had agreed to purge its search results of any Web sites disapproved of by the Chinese government, including Web sites promoting Falun Gong, a government-banned spiritual movement; sites promoting free speech in China; or any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. If you search for “Tibet” or “Falun Gong” most anywhere in the world on google.com, you’ll find thousands of blog entries, news items and chat rooms on Chinese repression. Do the same search inside China on google.cn, and most, if not all, of these links will be gone. Google will have erased them completely.

[...] It was difficult for me to know exactly how Lee felt about the company’s arrangement with China’s authoritarian leadership. As a condition of our meeting, Google had demanded that I not raise the issue of government relations; only the executives in Google’s California head office were allowed to discuss those matters. But as Lee and I talked about how the Internet was transforming China, he offered one opinion that seemed telling: the Chinese students he meets and employs, Lee said, do not hunger for democracy. “People are actually quite free to talk about the subject,” he added, meaning democracy and human rights in China. “I don’t think they care that much. I think people would say: ‘Hey, U.S. democracy, that’s a good form of government. Chinese government, good and stable, that’s a good form of government. Whatever, as long as I get to go to my favorite Web site, see my friends, live happily.’ ” Certainly, he said, the idea of personal expression, of speaking out publicly, had become vastly more popular among young Chinese as the Internet had grown and as blogging and online chat had become widespread. “But I don’t think of this as a political statement at all,” Lee said. “I think it’s more people finding that they can express themselves and be heard, and they love to keep doing that.”

It sounded to me like company spin — a curiously deflated notion of free speech. But spend some time among China’s nascent class of Internet users, as I have these past months, and you begin to hear such talk somewhat differently. Youth + freedom + equality + don’t be evil is an equation with few constants and many possible solutions. What is freedom, just now, to the Chinese? Are there gradations of censorship, better and worse ways to limit information? In America, that seems like an intolerable question — the end of the conversation. But in China, as Google has discovered, it is just the beginning.

[...] One Internet executive I spoke to summed up the conundrum of China’s Internet as the “distorted universe” problem. What happens to people’s worldviews when they do a Google search for Falun Gong and almost exclusively find sites opposed to it, as would happen today on google.cn? Perhaps they would trust Google’s authority and assume there is nothing to be found. This is the fear of Christopher Smith, the Republican representative who convened the recent Congressional hearings. [...]

But perhaps the distorted universe is less of a problem in China, because — as many Chinese citizens told me — the Chinese people long ago learned to read past the distortions of Communist propaganda and media control. [...] Google’s filtering of its results was not controversial for Guo because it was nothing new.

[...] Given how flexible computer code is, there are plenty of ways to distort the universe — to make its omissions more or less visible. [...] [A]ny Chinese citizen can sit in a Net cafe, plug “Tiananmen Square” into each version of the search engine and then compare the different results — a trick that makes the blacklist somewhat visible. Critics have suggested that Google should go even further and actually publish its blacklist online in the United States, making its act of censorship entirely transparent.

[...] When I spoke to Kai-Fu Lee in Google’s Beijing offices, there were moments that to me felt jarring. One minute he sounded like a freedom-loving Googler, arguing that the Internet inherently empowers its users. But the next minute he sounded more like Jack Ma of Alibaba — insisting that the Chinese have no interest in rocking the boat. It is a circular logic I encountered again and again while talking to China’s Internet executives: we don’t feel bad about filtering political results because our users aren’t looking for that stuff anyway.

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