History of Chinese Internet Censorship
In the western world, China has long been infamous for its human rights abuses. Prior to Deng Xiaoping’s re-opening of China to the west in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, these abuses were largely hidden from the West. With the advent of globalization, the PRC quickly realized the dangers of the internet to China’s fragile societal balance. Beginning in 2005, China began enlisting Western aid in Chinese internet censorship. Western companies like Cisco and Google have long abetted the Chinese government in establishing the so-called Great Firewall of China.
As Western social media developed, the PRC quickly recognized the power of these sites and moved to restrict its citizen’s access to these web sites. While some of these actions may appear to be antitrust behavior to allow local Chinese companies a competitive edge, make no mistake that the primary reason for censorship is the ongoing restriction of information from Chinese citizens. Nonetheless, as the Chinese web has developed, Chinese ‘netizens’ actively find ways around the Great Firewall and discuss social issues around the world. Numerous free tools such as Freegate, Freenet, and Vtunnel provide solutions for Chinese netizens to access the internet in the free world. As Chinese netizens find ways around the firewall, China has continued to step up its policing of the Chinese web.
The Power of Social Media in China
Over the past few years, more and more of China’s human rights abuses have come to light through social media. Ai Weiwei’s recent incarceration and the PRC’s bullying of Ai through gigantic back tax charges has resulted in Ai Weiwei speaking out about his incarceration. Using Google+, Ai was able to communicate methods of donation to help fight back against the $2.4 million back taxes claimed by the Chinese government. According to Chinese law, in order to contest tax charges of this nature, half of the sum must be presented as collateral. In an awe-inspiring demonstration of the power of Chinese social media, Ai’s supporters around the world have already donated more than $1 million in 2 weeks.
Despite the outpouring of support from the West, Ai Weiwei is quick to criticize Western foreign policy.
“Today, the West feels very shy about human rights and the political situation. They’re in need of money. But every penny they borrowed or made from China has really come as a result of how this nation sacrificed everybody’s rights… With globalization and the Internet, we all know it. Don’t pretend you don’t know it. The Western politicians—shame on them if they say they’re not responsible for this. It’s getting worse, and it will keep getting worse.”
Unfortunately, Ai is more than correct in his assessment. Unfortunately, Western politicians’ short-sightedness extends beyond Chinese foreign policy.
Internet Censorship in the United States
On October 26, 2011, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced in the House of Representatives. This bill aims to quell loosely defined “online piracy.” I’d like to compare SOPA to the Chinese web landscape by discussing the two major things that SOPA would do if passed.
1. SOPA allows for suspension of service prior to being found guilty
SOPA does away with the “safe harbors” defined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). These safe harbors allow some degree of protection for providers like Facebook, Youtube, and Google from liability for copyright infringement. SOPA would hold any site with user-generated content responsible. In Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., it was demonstrated that big media corporations have not considered fair use in the past when issuing takedown notices. In the SOPA world, the alleged rightsholder would be able to force former safe harbors to suspend service prior to being found guilty of infringing on rights. None of the sites that rely on user-generated content would be able to survive in this environment.
While China is not as concerned with IP laws as America is, there are obvious parallels here. The major Chinese Twitter-clone, Sina Weibo, is often forced to censor information without proof of guilt. This frequently involves blocking references to activists like Ai Weiwei who are trying to express free speech. The important point to note here is that in Ai’s case, he has not necessarily been proven to be guilty of anything prior to the repression of his speech. Similarly, whether or not the rightsholders’ property is being infringed upon, the alleged infringer would have to suspend services immediately.
2. SOPA allows the US government to blacklist web sites
Under Section 102 of SOPA, the Attorney General could order American companies from doing business with any alleged infringing web site. While proponents of SOPA have avoided using the term blacklist, make no mistake. SOPA allows the US government to blacklist websites.
If alarm bells aren’t ringing in your head yet, they should be. This is exactly what China has done with the Great Firewall. We have seen many times in China and recently in the Arab Spring that the censorship of internet is a strong component of the suppression of human rights. Recently, the UN has declared internet access a human right. SOPA would be infringing on American human rights in order to protect big media companies from infringement on their content.
Ultimately, SOPA attempts to control the American web space in the same way that the PRC suppresses human rights in China in the name of intellectual property protection. Look, at the end of the day, online piracy is a serious problem. However, SOPA is not the way to deal with it. If the DMCA needs to be revised to adjust to today’s web, then so be it. Let’s be clear here. This is not a slippery slope argument. SOPA puts in provisions that allows the US to control the internet the same way that the PRC does in China.
To help fight this bill,
visit americancensorship.org and show support for American Censorship Day tomorrow, November 16, 2011.