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The Battle Over Internet Freedom

5:13 PM, Oct 26, 2010 • By KELLEY CURRIE
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This is no accident, nor is it social commentary on the vapidity of the average Internet user. Rather, Internet users in China and other countries are carefully and inconspicuously given just enough online freedom to keep them from feeling constrained, while the content they are exposed to is subject to and shaped by layered and self-reinforcing controls that are mostly seamless and invisible.  For a better understanding how much more sophisticated and effective the Chinese government's Internet control regime has become, and how little it now relies on simple "blocking" to achieve this control, there are two recent scholarly pieces that deep dive into what makes this problem so difficult to crack and so damaging to overall efforts to promote human rights and democracy in these countries.  

Rebecca MacKinnon is a sharp observer of governments' – especially, but not exclusively, the Chinese government's -  efforts to manage Internet and communications technologies to its own advantage.  She recently delivered a paper on "networked authoritarianism" - the term she has coined to describe the efforts of the Chinese and other authoritarian regimes to harness the benefits of these technologies while removing the potential for these same technologies to be used in a way that threatens the regime's monopoly on political power. MacKinnon notes that Chinese authorities, both following and leading a trend of other control freak regimes, is moving beyond a reliance on "first generation" censorship techniques of blocking access and filtering content, and is increasingly reliant on more sophisticated means of shaping users' online experiences in ways that are largely unseen and unnoticed by users.  More importantly, MacKinnon innon demonstrates that these authoritarian regimes have found a path not only to keep the Internet from undermining them, but for using it to bolster their legitimacy.  She explores this counter-intuitive phenomenon most closely in the Chinese context, but notes that Beijing is hardly an outlier in its sophisticated use of new media and technologies. Her research and findings on these topics have important implications for U.S. policy, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the potential of the Internet and other communications technologies to support the growth of freedom worldwide.  

Likewise, cybersecurity experts Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski, the founders of the Information Warfare Monitor and the OpenNet Initiative, have an important new article in the Journal of Democracy that explores the duality of information technology: How the same technologies used by dissidents can also, and often more effectively, be harnessed by both criminals and dictatorial regimes. (OpenNet played a role in uncovering and identifying something it called "Ghost Net" - a sophisticated global cyber-espionage effort by Chinese hackers that infiltrated dozens of high-value political targets, including foreign governments, financial institutions, media, and NGOs.)  The authors highlight the range of techniques these regimes are using that go far beyond crude website blocking.  These "next generation" controls include: legal measures such as slander and libel laws, as well as regulatory frameworks that create a climate of fear and intimidation; informal pressure on private companies that manage the Internet backbone; keyword-level filtering and other outsourcing of censorship to private ISPs; requirements that Internet cafes track user information; surgical "just in time" blocking; patriotic hacking; and targeted surveillance and social-malware attacks on activists and dissidents.  Like MacKinnon, the authors see the most pernicious aspect of all this as being the regime's sub rosa role in manipulating the average Internet user - who remains largely unaware of how controlled his online experience actually is, or by whom his Internet experience is being controlled.

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