Ever talk to a friend in China over Skype? Congratulations! You've been surveilled by the People's Liberation Army. How's it feel, this Orwellian dimension? Not very awesome, right? Well, at least you're not alone.
~In addition to the 100 million or so Chinese Skype users, there's a rapidly growing portion of the population that's depending on Skype almost exclusively for international call. In fact, one out of every three international calls is now made over Skype, a company that subjects its users to strict surveillance from unknown government agents.
There's no use singling out Skype for cooperating with China's crazy surveillance program. Skype and its parent company, Microsoft, join a long list of tech companies that have bent over backwards — mind you, some more than others — in order to win the Chinese government's blessing to do business there. While some, like Skype, are helping the government keep track of what the people are saying through secret surveillance, others are helping keep certain topics obscured.
Surveillance is not the same thing as censorship. While they're certainly related, there's something much more sinister about surveillance. You know, the All Seeing Eye, Big Brother, The System. Recent research shows that the Chinese government spies on Skype users looking for certain keywords or information about, say, a protest being organized. It's unclear exactly what the Chinese government does with this information, but it does appear to inform the types of information that they decide to censor. So you could really say that Skype is helping both with the surveillance and with the censorship.
Google is probably the most famous case of another company both feeding info to the authorities and blocking the people from seeing it. For a decade, Google conformed to China's censorship laws, showing Chinese users just a fraction of their search results and blocking certain words altogether. After fierce protest, the company announced in 2010 that it was no longer willing to participate in the practice and entered negotiations with the Chinese government that eventually failed.
Google ended up directing all Chinese traffic to its Hong Kong site and said that it stopped censoring results. Three years later, however, watchdogs say that some words remain blocked. Nevertheless, other companies still want to move in on the mainland, most notably Facebook.
What's all this say about Skype? Well, it shows that Skype's willing to stop at nothing to continue its growth. The surveillance program runs on the TOM-Skype software you need to use the service. TOM-Skype is the partnership between Skype and Chinese communications company TOM that runs Skype's service in China. TOM owns a majority share of the partnership so the company considers itself Chinese.
This is a great strategy for both companies. The Chinese company gets the best Western technology. The Western companies get access to the massive Chinese market while still being able to recuse themselves from total blame.
Cooperating with Chinese spies and censors even jives with these companies mission statements in a weird way. When a group of activists published an open letter criticizing Skype's cooperation with the Chinese government, Microsoft said in a statement, "Skype’s mission is to break down barriers to communications and enable conversations worldwide."
Microsoft also added a line about its TOM partnership: "As majority partner in the joint venture, TOM has established procedures to meet its obligations under local laws.” In other words, Skype is doing good by spreading communications, and TOM is doing right by obeying local laws. Why's everybody so upset?
That's just the thing. People don't seem that upset at all. Looking at Skype's growth rate alone — one in three calls! — you can see that people would rather get free international calls that hold onto their right to privacy. Don't forget that the vast majority of TOM-Skype's users are Chinese people who haven't ever really had a right to privacy.
Maybe the real issue is with these American companies not listening to civil rights activists or their moral compasses. But why would they? Money is money. And China's got a ton of it.