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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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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. 

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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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