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Free Expression? Heavy Price…

At a meeting yesterday of China’s Communist Party Politburo, President Hu Jintao warned that more stringent controls on internet content must be put into place. Over the last week, the Chinese media has been leading a campaign to underscore the negative effects of “unhealthy” internet content. It’s no news to anyone that in large part the “healthiness” of online content is defined according to the parameters of what the Communist Chinese government finds palatable.

At a meeting yesterday of China’s Communist Party Politburo, President Hu Jintao warned that more stringent controls on internet content must be put into place. Over the last week, the Chinese media has been leading a campaign to underscore the negative effects of “unhealthy” internet content. It’s no news to anyone that in large part the “healthiness” of online content is defined according to the parameters of what the Communist Chinese government finds palatable.

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Last year a report published by Reporters Without Borders revealed that more than 60 “cyber dissidents” in China are in jail for comments they made online. According to an Amnesty International spokesperson, some of those imprisoned have been jailed for offenses as petty as disseminating information about the SARS virus or signing an online petition.

The country uses key word blocking technology to restrict access to “dangerous” websites (including the BBC’s and Wikipedia,) and monitors cyber café activity by taking screen shots at periodic intervals.

The internet was ignored for a long time, as governments focused more on print journalists, authors, and real live protesters rather than those prominent in movements centered on cyber specific dissent in the form of blogging or online petitions. Of late however, conservative governments have woken up to the dangers that the unbounded nature of the internet poses to their regimes. Write a piece or stage a protest in cyberspace, and all of a sudden you’re gathering support from England, Australia, and even Sri Lanka.

I personally believe that the Chinese will continue to find a way around these regulations, and that cyber dissidents, although quashed temporarily, won’t be easily eliminated. In cyberspace, rules can be broken far more easily, and innovation is proceeding at a far quicker pace than in real life.

Just as digital rights management technology is constantly being eroded by a few small groups who circumvent the latest DRM protection, the efforts on the part of the Chinese government to control access to content could also be eroded by a motivated few. The BBC lists sites like Peacefire, Anonymizer and WebWarper, which aid in circumventing blocking technologies.

Earlier this year, Microsoft, Yahoo, Cisco Systems, and Google were accused in a Congressional hearing of censoring internet content in order to be able to enter the Chinese market. There are two sides to this issue- both of which have some credit to them.

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The first, advocated by politicians like Tom Lantos, condemns Google and the rest. This side accuses the corporations of caving to Beijing’s demands for their own selfish business incentives without any sense of social responsibility. The second, advocated by the relevant corporations and their supporters, is that it is better to offer the Chinese some access to information than restrict their opportunity to interact with the world outside China by denying them of their services altogether. This side could conceivably argue that they are in fact facilitating a movement toward democracy within China by allowing some exchange of information as opposed to a total ban.

Whatever stance one takes, the situation at hand is a real eye-opener regarding the power that the Chinese government has gained over the content that enters and leaves the country. As China’s economic influence continues to increase, it is extremely important for democratic governments that have relations with China to not buckle under pressure. It is just as important for us, as citizens of less restrictive states, to not ignore the fact that “free” expression comes at a heavy price for many.

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