China’s newest export: Internet censorship
Yet the days of Americans piously condemning China’s “Great Firewall” and hoping for a technological silver bullet that would pierce it are over. China’s system is a potent, vast and sophisticated network of computer, legal and human censorship. The Chinese model is spreading to other authoritarian regimes. And governments worldwide, including the United States, are aggressively trying to legislate the Internet.
“There is a growing trend toward Internet censorship in a range of countries,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a prominent online democracy advocate and author of the forthcoming book “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.” “The same technology that helps secure your network from attack, that actually enables you to censor your network also.”
The problem is not software or hardware developed in a secret Chinese government laboratory. Recent news reports have uncovered American and European companies selling surveillance technologies to Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Thailand and other governments that block the web and brutally suppress dissent.
While the Egyptian government’s attempt to shut down the Internet during the Tahrir Square protests drew headlines, western governments are increasingly using the web for law enforcement surveillance. In a biannual transparency report released earlier this month, Google reported a 70 percent increase in requests for content removal or user information from the American government or police in the first half of 2011. Brazil filed the most requests, followed by Germany, the U.S. and South Korea, according to The Guardian.
Western companies are also under fire. Research in Motion, the Canadian firm that produces Blackberry smartphones, acceded to demands from The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and India for access to its users’ email messages. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet free speech group, has accused Cisco of selling surveillance equipment to the Chinese government that is used for human rights abuses.
A core problem is the pursuit of the almighty online dollar. An extraordinary story in The Guardian introduced readers to Jerry Lucas, the president of TeleStrategies, a Virginia company that organizes conferences around the world where firms sell surveillance and other technologies to governments. In an interview, Lucas said companies have no ethical obligation to determine if their products are being sold to regimes that will use them to suppress dissent.
“That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country,” he told the reporter. “We’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”
Lucas argued that “99.9% good” comes out of the industry’s technology, which is primarily used to thwart online theft. That same argument is behind two misguided proposals in the U.S. Congress that MacKinnon warned this week in The New York Times would create “The Great Firewall of America.”
In an effort to stop online piracy, a House bill would hold Internet service providers responsible for copyright infringement. A who’s who of American industry is backing the bills, from U.S. Chambers of Commerce to the Motion Picture Association of America to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But the legislation is far too broad and will unintentionally bring elements of China’s censorship regime to the United States.
A requirement in the proposal that American Internet providers police their users mirrors China’s system of corporate “self discipline.” Here in Beijing, companies are required to report banned online speech to the government.
A morning coffee with a prominent Chinese blogger brought to life the success of the Chinese model and the chilling intersection of modern communication and surveillance. The blogger, who asked not to be named, said the Chinese government’s “Great Firewall” is succeeding. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are banned in China, but the government allows the Chinese computer firm Sina Weibo to operate microblogs that are the mirror image of Twitter.
Sina Weibo’s CEO, in an interview with Forbes Asia, said the company has as many as 100 employees working 24 hours a day to track and block user content, in order to avoid running afoul of the government.
The blogger said that basing the servers in China made it possible for the Chinese government to allow microblogging but maintain control. “Put the server in your hands, the data in your hands,” he said. “The people are happy but they don’t overthrow you.”
He said that when he blogs in English, electronic and human censors largely ignore his work. When he expresses dissent in Chinese, the content is blocked by programs that search the web for banned terms, such as “Tiananmen Square,” “Tibet,” or “Falun Gong.”
“They just stop the topic,” the blogger said. “They have good search engines for the different topics.”
Young Chinese revel in online social networks, according to the blogger. The government has successfully found a sweet spot where it provides a growing economy, western consumerism and limited online access.
“The Internet changed the mindset of this generation but it’s incremental and very slow,” the blogger said. “The only thing that can change China very quickly is a financial crisis.”
And in a sign of the model’s success, many Chinese bloggers and journalists do not raise sensitive topics online. Asked if he tried to hide his true identity when he was online, the blogger laughed.
“We don’t hide,” he said. “We use self-censorship.”
Last month, China, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan submitted a resolution to the U.N. General Assembly that would give individual states the right to control the Internet. The United States, which would lose its position as the de facto controller of the web, opposes the measure, along with other Western countries. Advocacy groups that argue for full online freedom believe it is vital to push back now against such encroachments.
The Internet is the most revolutionary communications device of our lifetime. It is also a devastatingly effective surveillance tool. MacKinnon and other advocates are right. Congress and American companies should work to dismantle China’s Orwellian model, not replicate it.
Photo: Chinese artist and film-maker Zhang Bingjian pauses while holding a frame for disgraced official Wan Ruizhong, Party Secretary of Nandan County, whose portrait photography cannot been found from the Internet, as he stands in front of other portraits for his “Hall of Fame” project in a studio in Beijing April 22, 2011. The stark, monochromatic portraits rendered in the reddish-pink hue of China’s 100 yuan banknotes, painted by a team of artists in Shenzhen’s Dafen village — known for its mass-produced knock-offs of iconic Western paintings — are the brainchild of outspoken Zhang. REUTERS/Jason Lee