David Harsanyi

On his recent trip abroad, President Barack Obama declared that the United States could not impose its values on other nations. But what if we were actually complicitous in undermining our fundamental values elsewhere?

One could argue that American corporations, such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, would be abetting censorship if they acquiesced to China's recent demand that all personal computers sold in that country be equipped with software that allows government officials to block access to Web sites that disseminate "unhealthy information."

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The software, called "Green Dam-Youth Escort" -- in this case, "green" does not signify the innovative, virtuous, environmental kind of soft tyranny we like -- is designed ostensibly to filter out sexually explicit sites, but in reality, it will allow China to monitor Internet use, ban political sites and collect personal information.

Wouldn't these companies, in effect, be aiding the Communist regime in its attempt to gain unprecedented control of information on the Internet?

Yes and no.

This is not the first time American corporations have yielded to Chinese censorship demands. Several online search engines, including Google and Yahoo, already are complying with "censorship requests" from China -- no searching for "Falun Gong" or "crackdown in Tiananmen Square" -- and other similarly freedom-resistant nations.

The trouble for the Communist nation is that Internet users have rather effortlessly gotten around the "Great Firewall of China." And if history is any indication, ingenuity will prevail once more. If we've learned anything as a free people, it's that you can't keep the masses from their pornography -- or, on occasion, even the truth.

But if we believe that the U.S. has no business imposing its values on other nations, why would we expect corporations to spread the good word?

Some critics have presented the issue as a straightforward choice between corporate "profits" and enlightened "principle." (Profit, predictably, being the immoral choice.) Which is technically true. But what if profit is the constructive way to advance our principles?

The 40 million personal computers sold in China last year, many of them in the hands of once-isolated people, will do more to liberalize that nation than any government sanction or well-intentioned protest we could concoct. When, after all, has any policy of isolation or trade restriction helped spread democracy or undermine tyranny?