Over the past couple years, internet-fueled uprisings in Egypt, Lybia, Syria, and other parts of the world have made Chinese officials very nervous. They have exerted a firm hand in controlling any communications deemed detrimental to the ruling party and have now gone so far as to block any Google searches of the English words “democracy” and “freedom.”
But this kind of conversational scrutiny has proven to be a double-edged sword.
In late July a tragic high-speed train crash occurred in Wenzhou, China. Instantly, Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, became a focal point for information about the accident, letting victim families know the status of their loved ones. At the same time, Weibo became a transparent medium for personal commentary and incendiary speculation about the cause of the accident.
The Communist Party sees a huge threat, and it’s a tough one for them to control.
On one hand, they feel control of the Communist Party is at risk unless they takes firmer steps to stop Internet opinion being shaped by the opposition. But at the same time, the Internet is becoming a very popular medium and a central tool for business and industry.
This is as much a business issue as it is a free-speech issue. So where does China go from here?
Code is Law
In the world of computers, the word “code” refers to the binary “1s” and “0s” that processors decipher. As a legal term, the word “code” refers to the written edicts used to interpret the law.
However, these two uses of the word began to merge in the 1999 book “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace” written by Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig. Going beyond traditional interpretations, he explored ways in which computer code can function both to control its internal code as well as an instrument for social control. This has led to his famous maxim that “Code is law.”
For this reason, China has been exerting a heavy hand over the Internet code as it flows in and out of the country.
Early Internet Thinking
In 1998 President Clinton visited China and even visited one of the growing number of Internet cafes to mingle with the people. Later he quipped about what he saw. “There is no question China has been trying to crack down on the Internet – good luck. (laughter). That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. (laughter).”
In the 2006 book, “Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World” authors Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith explain why Clinton’s thinking was wrong.
“When President Bill Clinton visited China in 1998, he pledged to spend time talking about freedom of information and human rights. While in Shanghai, Clinton stopped at an Internet café to mingle with young Internet users. He said afterward, “I had an incredible experience in one of these Internet cafés in Shanghai.” Access, he declared, was now open to all. “Even if they didn’t have computers at home, they could come to the café, buy a cup of coffee, rent a little time and access the Internet.” Clinton later joked about China’s prospects for controlling the Net.
While Clinton was visiting China, Wang Youcai, a political activist, decided to test Clinton’s theory. On the morning of June 28, 1998, Wang went with two friends to the Civil Affairs Bureau in Hangzhou, China. The bureau is located near the famous and picturesque West Lake, former summer residence of the emperor, about eighty miles south of Shanghai. As part of a careful plan devised via e-mail, Wang decided to register, openly, an opposition political party, with a name similar to President Clinton’s party: the “China Democracy Party.”
Wang was aware of the risks but felt the time was ripe. Clinton was in China; the regime had begun to signal some degree of political relaxation – yet another “Beijing Spring” in the history of Chinese politics; and the China Democracy Party had the liberating power of Internet technology on its side. Even if the registration failed, Wang had set up overseas websites, and used a U.S.-based e-mail newsletter to communicate his ideas to thousands of Mainland Chinese. The China Democracy Party would, they thought, follow a long history of overseas Chinese opposition movements and conduct its resistance in cyberspace. Wang was putting the Internet’s capacity for political liberation to the test.
Wang’s application was, unsurprisingly, rejected. The next day, June 29, police officers came to his home in Hangzhou. While his wife and children watched, they took Wang away. As his wife, Hu Jiangxia, later said, “Plain-clothes police came to our house around one o’clock and talked to my husband about his activities and about the Chinese Democracy Party. They took him away just before four o’clock.” The detention came just as Clinton arrived in Shanghai, 80 miles from Wang’s home.
Wang and others were formally charged, several weeks later, with “fomenting opposition against the government.”
His wife wrote an impassioned letter to President Ziang Zeming. “Does he deserve to be treated like this just because of the pursuit of democracy and freedom?” she asked. Her letter, available only outside of China, went unanswered.
On December 18, Wang was tried in a Hangzhou court without a lawyer. Facing a possible penalty of life imprisonment, he pled out guilty and conducted his own, unsuccessful, defense. His trial lasted only a few hours. He was sentenced on December 21, 1998, to eleven years imprisonment and three years deprivation of political rights for subversion.
Around the same time, most of the other founding members of the China Democracy Party were tried and imprisoned. Wang and his colleagues had become Clinton’s Jell-O, nailed to the wall.”
The Censorship Engine
Emboldened by control theories described in “Who Controls the Internet?” China’s censorship engine came into its own in mid-2008, and restrictions once thought of as temporary, such as bans on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, are now considered permanent. Government-friendly alternatives have sprung up and are amassing a considerable following.
Web sites in China are required to employ people who monitor and delete objectionable content – no porn, online gambling, or political organizers. Untold thousands are now paid to oversee and guide Web conversations in a manner the government views as favorable.
In December 2008, a pro-democracy movement called Charter 08, led by highly regarded intellectuals, released an online petition calling for an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. The group’s Web site, bulldog.com, was instantly shut down.
Under the guise of a campaign against pornography and other deviant behavior, government censors launched a campaign that shut down over 1,900 websites and 250 blogs. Not surprisingly it wasn’t just the porn sites that got shuttered. Online discussion forums, instant-message groups and even cellphone text messages in which political and other sensitive issues surfaced, quickly found themselves in the information landfills of Eastern society.
In 2009 the government went so far as to require the installation of a new software program called “Green Dam-Youth Escort” on all new Chinese-made computers. The software was effectively designed to monitor and report on all user activity. This, however, received a powerful consumer backlash and the government finally backed off, indefinitely delayed enforcement of the rule.
Ironically, even though China is building one of the most technically sophisticated Internet firewalls in the world, they have still managed to cultivate a very vibrant and dynamic community of Web users. Today there are over 70 million bloggers in China, over 200 million accounts on the Chinese version of Twitter – Weibo, and over 485 million Internet users, more than in any other country.
In a less caustic approach, the government employs thousands of writers to act as regular web users and offer their thoughts to counter any criticism of the Communist Party. These people have become known as the “50 Cent Party” because the government pays them 50 Chinese cents for every post that helps reshape public opinion in a positive way.
The China-Google Showdown
In January 2010, the festering battle between China’s government’s policy and one of the world’s most high-profile companies, Google, was coming to a head. Google announced that it would cease operations in China unless its search engine results were no longer filtered. The government responded by saying that companies doing business in China must follow the law.
Google shut down it’s primary .CN search engine in March 2010 and began directing users in China to its uncensored sister search engine based in Hong Kong. While this decision to skirt censorship rules without violating the letter of Chinese law first appeared okay with officials, resentment continued to brew.
In June 2010, Google announced that the Beijing government had renewed its license to operate a Web site in Mainland China. The license renewal was viewed as a peace offering to diffuse tensions. But the story was far from over.
In March 2011, Google once again accused the Chinese government of disrupting its Gmail service in the country and making it appear as if technical problems at Google — not government intervention — were to blame.
What was so clever about China’s attacks (assuming Google has it right) is that the failures are intermittent, designed to appear to be Google miscues, not products of state security actions.
At the same time, several popular virtual private-network services, or V.P.N.’s, designed to evade the government’s computerized censors, have been crippled. V.P.N.’s are popular with China’s huge expatriate community and Chinese entrepreneurs, researchers and scholars who expect to use the Internet freely.
Google, while uncomfortable with operating in China and censoring its search results on Beijing’s behalf, is determined to keep a foot in China, which now has more Internet users than the United States.
The Next Generation Internet
Chinese officials and media have recently complained about the spread of damaging and unfounded “rumors” on the Internet. But while they are very skilled at controlling the Internet conversation inside their own country, they are like a fish out of water when it comes to managing the global conversation.
Few analysts believe that the government will loosen controls any time soon, with events it considers politically sensitive filling the calendar, including a turnover in the Communist Party’s top leadership in 2012.
On one hand, China controls the largest base of Internet users in the world. If China continues down the path of prosperity, their current $6 trillion GDP will overtake both the $15 trillion GDP of the U.S. and the $16 trillion GDP of the European Union.
The number of billionaires in China has shot up to 271, more than double the 130 who achieved this rare status in 2009. And this growing wealthy class is beginning to exert considerable influence on public policy.
As Michigan State’s Professor Peter Yu puts it, “The question is no longer how the Internet will affect China. It’s how China will affect the Internet.”
That said, information walls are never permanent.
In much the same way one lie can lead to another lie, and that one leads to an even more sophisticated tangle of untruths, filtering conversations over time becomes an increasingly incestuous, and often self-crippling, network of separating rights from wrongs.
Businesses inside China are at a considerable disadvantage because they can’t “see” the whole picture. At the same time, businesses outside of China will find it increasingly difficult to break into thier market.
Certainly China is not the only country exerting local influence and control over the Internet. There are literally thousands of other examples.
When the U.S. shut down access to all online gambling sites in 2005 by disrupting the credit card company’s flow of money, the Internet moved one step further down the path of location-based regulation and control.
Today, if someone in the U.S. sends a series of text messages or emails using the right combination of “terrorist” words, you can bet they will be getting a visit from someone at Homeland Security very soon. So how different is the U.S. from China?
Many users look forward to the days when spam is under control, viruses are a thing of the past, and identities are far more protected from theft. We long for the days when online searches point us to exactly what we are looking for without having to weed through tons of garbage. And virtually no one wants to have to remember what Internet laws come into play when we travel with increasing ease from one country to the next.
In the coming years we will begin to see a number of technologies designed to circumvent the barriers – impenetrable private clouds, satellite-based Internet connections, and encrypted websites.
But the hard cold reality is that the unrestricted freedoms of the past will never return to their earlier form.
Governments now have a variety of techniques for controlling offshore Internet communications by enforcing their laws through coercion within their borders. In reality, the Internet is splitting apart, growing elaborate new borders.
Far from flattening the world, the Internet is being reformed around the geography of place.
But contrary to what the fatalists may be imagining, the next version of the Internet will have many virtues and opportunities to offset the freedom we are losing. It will be neither better nor worse, just different.
Over the coming months I will work towards uncovering next generation of opportunities. In the mean time, I’d love to hear your thoughts.