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Surfing the Chinternet

What hides behind the "Great Firewall" of China?

7:30 AM, Jun 18, 2010 • By KELLEY CURRIE
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Last week, the Chinese government issued a new propaganda piece in the form of a policy paper on its Internet control policies. It serves as a typical example of Beijing's Orwellian use of language and formalism to dress up its authoritarianism as legal and rational. In Beijing's alternate universe, the Chinese people have exactly as much Internet freedom as they need, and the real threat to their optimal online experience comes from spam, pornography, and "illegal information" that endangers state security.  

A broad swath of what would be considered normal online speech in the West is proscribed like this in the piece's section on Internet "security:"

[N]o organization or individual may produce, duplicate, announce or disseminate information having the following contents: being against the cardinal principles set forth in the Constitution; endangering state security, divulging state secrets, subverting state power and jeopardizing national unification; damaging state honor and interests; instigating ethnic hatred or discrimination and jeopardizing ethnic unity; jeopardizing state religious policy, propagating heretical or superstitious ideas; spreading rumors, disrupting social order and stability; disseminating obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, brutality and terror or abetting crime; humiliating or slandering others, trespassing on the lawful rights and interests of others; and other contents forbidden by laws and administrative regulations. These regulations are the legal basis for the protection of Internet information security within the territory of the People's Republic of China. All Chinese citizens, foreign citizens, legal persons and other organizations within the territory of China must obey these provisions.

At the same time, the paper asserts that: 

The Internet provides unprecedented convenience and a direct channel for the people to exercise their right to know, to participate, to be heard and to oversee, and is playing an increasingly important role in helping the government get to know the people's wishes, meet their needs and safeguard their interests. The Chinese government is determined to unswervingly safeguard the freedom of speech on the Internet enjoyed by Chinese citizens in accordance with the law.

Somebody tell that to all those Chinese dissidents -- such as Liu Xiaobo -- who are currently in jail for "exercising their right to know, to participate to be heard" through online advocacy.

This effort by Beijing to go on the offensive, by characterizing its approach to regulating the Internet in such terms, has added fuel to the discussion both inside China, and among China-watch dogs and Internet freedom advocates who worry about the extent and nature of China's Internet censorship regime and how to best fight it. One of the more interesting items in this debate comes from the China Digital Times, which translated a posting by a Chinese blogger that uses the white paper's self-congratulatory statistics hilariously to analyze the government's efforts at "harmonizing" opinion on the Chinternet.  With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the Chinese blogger analyzes the statistics the government provides on blogging to demonstrate that 98 percent of comments posted to Chinese websites are "harmonized," or deleted due to unauthorized content use.  What is most interesting about this post is that it first appeared on the uber-nationalist Chinese blog Iron and Blood Forum, whose netizens generally reserve their criticism of the Chinese government to cases where they think the government is not standing up for Chinese interests vigorously enough. The blogger's mocking tone clearly demonstrates the user's strong level of awareness of, and frustration with, the blinkered nature of the Chinternet.

On the concept of "internet sovereignty," which sounds like an oxymoron but apparently is not, there is this interview by Evan Osnos, a Beijing-based reporter for the New Yorker, with Professor Tim Wu, which looks at the issue of the Chinese censorship regime as a restraint on trade. Wu, who is an expert on international law and the Internet, has the following to say on China's approach to "internet sovereignty:" 

The interesting thing is that the term “Internet sovereignty” originally had a meaning opposite to what the Chinese define it as. In the mid-nineties, some American academics proposed that, since it has its own rules, and its own citizens (of a sort), the Internet ought be considered “sovereign” in a way. 

...

The Chinese obviously don’t agree with that theory—they don’t think the Internet is like Iceland, a self-governing land, so to speak. In this, the fact is that the Chinese are not alone. Most countries have by now assumed that Internet firms or content-providers must follow their laws, at least when it can be said that it has effects within their borders, or a physical presence of some kind, like a server. So the Chinese theory of “Internet sovereignty,” if poorly named, is a statement of private international law as typically practiced. (This is the subject of a book Jack Goldsmith and I wrote in 2006, “Who Controls the Internet?”). The big difference is the substance of the Chinese rules—which go way beyond the rules of any major country.

The other big difference is that other countries, if they don’t consider the Internet sovereign, have a certain respect for the network as a platform for free speech (sometimes linked to a non-blocking principle, or “net neutrality.”) Again this varies from place to place, but China is unique in its lack of respect for the idea of an open Internet.

Rebecca McKinnon, one of the leading Western experts on the Chinternet, has also weighed in with a substantial and thought-provoking blog post on this issue. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what China is up to with the Internet. In addition to an excellent quick analysis of the white paper, and very interesting comments on Chinese attitudes about Internet freedom, McKinnon makes this observation:

China is pioneering what I call "networked authoritarianism." Compared to classic authoritarianism, networked authoritarianism permits – or shall we say accepts the Internet’s inevitable consequences and adjusts – a lot more give-and-take between government and citizens than in a pre-Internet authoritarian state. While one party remains in control, a wide range of conversations about the country’s problems rage on websites and social networking services. The government follows online chatter, and sometimes people are even able to use the Internet to call attention to social problems or injustices, and even manage to have an impact on government policies. As a result, the average person with Internet or mobile access has a much greater sense of freedom – and may even feel like they have the ability to speak and be heard – in ways that weren’t possible under classic authoritarianism. It also makes most people a lot less likely to join a movement calling for radical political change. In many ways, the regime actually uses the Internet not only to extend its control but also to enhance its legitimacy.  

A consensus is emerging that the government has largely been successful in shaping the Chinternet as a parallel version of the Internet behind the "Great Firewall." The Chinternet provides an online experience that is heavily managed through a sophisticated, multi-layered approach that involves automatic keyword-based information control, extensive human monitoring, endemic self-censorship, large doses of government sponsored or supported content, and the cooperation of both Western and Chinese technology companies. Nevertheless, it is just loose enough that it meets the needs of most Chinese users and still presents a substantial space for public discussion and networking.

Lots of stuff to think about as we ponder the challenge by Gabriel Schoenfeld to get serious about using the Internet and online networking to support the spread of democracy. 

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