As Google prepares potentially for a highly politicized exist of China, we’ll hear a lot more accusations on how closed China’s Internet is. The presumption of Google’s move would be that China’s Internet is closed while the rest of the world (in which Google still does business) is open.
Of course, anyone who has even remote experience with China’s internet (and Chinese society for that matter) will understand the Internet in China is amongst the most dynamic in the world, as well as amongst the most explosive and important.
China’s Internet is not closed in the sense that has been depicted in the West.
When the Chinese governments regulates political speech, it is done in the spirit of protecting the public order – similar to the way regulators in the West outlaws fraud, hate speech, child pornography, conspiracy, terrorist planning to protect the public. It’s not always about covering up corruption or protecting the powers of the elite – as is popularly depicted in the West. Political speech that are manipulative and that result in public unrest are seen by many in China as a type of fraud or hate speech.
As the Internet matures, as we move onto web 2.0, people are beginning to realize that the Internet – like everything else – should not be immune to regulation (see also this excellent article from Time). We may bicker about what should and what should not be regulated – or how things should be regulated – but the Internet is not about a carte blanche to do anything as one pleases. As is everywhere else in the world, Internet in China is not a free haven for illegal or illicit activities.
In theory, I’m all for as much freedom as possible. I suppose that if I want to conduct “hate speech” with my buddies – and we don’t hurt anyone doing so – we should be allowed the right to do so. If I want to enjoy child pornography – assuming it can be done in a way that does not hurt the children – I should be allowed to do so. If I want to perpetuate fraud – I should have the right to do so. The line between aggressive business dealings and fraud can sometimes be hard to draw anyways. Let the market deal with the likes of me.
But a society has values. The public has a right to public peace.
The U.S. Congress is currently considering a law “to provide for the development of a cadre of information technology specialists to improve and maintain effective cybersecurity defenses against disruption, and for other purposes.” This includes giving the president the power to declare a cybersecurity emergency and shut down the Internet as needed. Australia already has a pretty “intrusive” framework for censoring the Internet. So do India, South Korea, and it looks like France.
Here is a summary (though somewhat dated) of internet censorship laws and policy around the world.
My point here is not to say China is right, Google is wrong, but merely to point out that the issues are not black and white.
It is ultimately in the interest of the Chinese government to allow more dissent and political speech – especially in a way that is constructive, that propels the society to advance forward. The perspective of certain dissents can be very useful in checking corruption, for example (see my previous post as well as this excellent China daily article).
But China must walk a fine balance to make the most of the Internet. When properly harnessed, the Internet can be a great source for empowerment and democratization. Incorrectly managed, the Internet can degenerate into a breeding ground for crime, fraud, hate, terrorism, and other socially subversive activities.
I may not agree with what the Chinese government censors every time, but I do take issue with those who attack “Chinese censorship” as categorically unenlightened.