When Yahoo was forced to give up information that led to the imprisonment of journalist Shi Tao; when Microsoft removed the blog of Michael Anti at Beijing's behest, and when Google launched its censored China service two weeks ago in contradiction of its mission statement 'Don't be evil', their reasoning was the same. We have no choice, they said. To operate in China means living by Chinese rules. But the companies do have a choice - it's just not an appealing one. The firms either annoy their shareholders by ignoring potential business opportunities in China, or annoy freedom-of-speech activists, bloggers and often their customers by giving in to consumer service standards that would never be tolerated in their home markets, and just happen to contradict so-called universal values of human rights. In the cases cited above, the companies clearly sided with the shareholders. But last week, for the first time, there appeared a tacit acknowledgement from the companies that kowtowing to the cadres in Beijing was having a damaging impact on their interests in the United States. Microsoft was the first to announce new guidelines for removing offending blogs from its Chinese servers, while maintaining access for overseas readers. 'When local laws require the company to block access to certain content, Microsoft will ensure that users know why that content was blocked, by notifying them that access has been limited due to a government restriction,' it said. The software giant then teamed up with rivals Google and Yahoo, and Cisco, to present a unified stance ahead of a congressional hearing on censorship in China later this month. The statement called on the US government to take the lead in pressuring Beijing to abandon its opposition to freedom of expression on the internet. 'While we believe that companies have a responsibility to identify appropriate practices in each market in which they do business, we think there is a role for government-to-government discussion of the larger issues,' according to the statement. Of course, none of this will significantly improve anything for Chinese internet users. Yahoo will continue to hand over the details of its users when requested by Beijing, just as Microsoft will continue to remove politically sensitive blogs and Google China will refuse to show webpages mentioning Falun Gong. But a bigger question is whether the stance adopted by the world's leading technology firms represents even a small step towards the day when the companies refuse to co-operate with Beijing on these issues - or even better, persuade it that freedom on the internet is in its best interest. Google's position on this issue is now very clear. Based on its 'evil scale', the company decided that withdrawing the service entirely would be a greater evil against Chinese internet users than providing a limited service with the juicy bits removed. In other words, give people in China what is legal and hope that over time a combination of domestic and international pressure results in a further relaxation of the rules. Ignore for a moment the fact that Google's mission statement 'Don't be evil' has no mention of scalability. This policy has the advantage of letting the firm make its money while the government makes up its mind. But the policy also has merit, depending on who you listen to. It is frequently argued, for example, that the fuss about internet censorship in China is largely a foreign creation, with mainland users pointing out they are better off now and that even a censored internet allows them to say and find more, not less. But would the alternative improve things faster? A purely Chinese-built internet would be more to Beijing's liking - the entire Web controlled through a single mega computer at the Public Security Bureau, and every posting channelled through government filters. It is a scary thought. But lurking in this scenario is the best argument to persuade Beijing that freedom of expression online is in the country's long-term interest. The internet in its purest form - with productivity gains for companies and empowerment for individuals - is the embodiment of democratic principles and freedom of expression. A white paper released by Google's founders at Stanford illustrates this. 'By analysing the full structure of the Web, Google is able to determine which sites have been voted the best sources of information by those most interested in the information they offer,' the paper said. No mention is made of withholding information, just the principle that the best information - as voted for by users - rises to the top. In the so-called era of Web 2.0, the wisdom of crowds - individual users voting for the postings and content that appeal the most to them - has replaced 'editing from above' in the form of gatekeepers and webmasters. Without these functioning principles, the internet loses its power and users suffer. The Chinese government is likely to relent only when it realises a failure to empower its citizens to the fullest extent will damage the country's ability to compete.