Google has been making headlines recently over its decision to stop censoring its Chinese search engine, Google.cn, in response to attacks on its corporate infrastructure that targeted the Gmail accounts of human rights activists. Although this Google incident is a new development, Internet censorship in China has been a fact of life for years. If anything, the recent attack on Google is part of a larger trend, which started years ago and has been gathering steam since early 2008, of increased control and monitoring, both of Internet content and of China's own citizens as they get online in ever greater numbers.
The past several years have been dismal for proponents of Internet freedom in China: we've seen increasingly sophisticated censorship technology coupled with the rise of the "50 Cent Party," an army of youth who are paid 50 cents for every pro-government comment they write online; social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been banned; the restive province of Xinjiang has had no Internet service whatsoever for six months now (although the government recently allowed access to a few state-run websites); and then there was Charter 08, the web-based manifesto promoting respect for human rights and peaceful democratic reforms in China. Originally signed by 303 concerned Chinese citizens from all walks of life, Charter 08 has gone on to collect over 10,000 signatures--but all references to Charter have since been deleted from Chinese websites and a key author of Charter 08, Liu Xiaobo, was sentenced on Christmas Day to eleven years in prison.
Encouragingly, these repeated setbacks have not dampened the drive of the Chinese people to seek and share information online. Many Chinese circumvent government controls on a daily basis, through proxy servers and other means, in order to access uncensored information and use social media (Twitter is especially popular amongst Chinese "netizens"). I suspect the leadership in Beijing was none too pleased to learn that on January 15, the day after Google announced it would no longer censor its search results, the most popular search term on Google.cn was "Tiananmen."
As a nation that values freedom of speech, it is crucial that we make a concerted effort to promote Internet freedom--and that we take steps to prevent US companies from participating in censorship. Secretary of State Clinton is unveiling a new policy initiative today that aims to promote Internet freedom, and I am eager to hear the details of the new strategy. It was reported that in preparation for today's announcement, Clinton met with executives from Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Cisco. Although I can understand seeking a wide range of viewpoints, I do hope that Clinton will not give too much weight to the opinions of these executives; Google (until last week) and Microsoft both have participated in censorship in order to profit from the ever-growing Chinese market, and Cisco sold China the routers that make censorship possible (and continues to market a variety of technologies to China's Public Security Bureau).
Although we do not yet know the specifics of the new policy, Secretary Clinton's speech today does suggest that the Obama administration wants to make Internet freedom a priority. This seems true in the case of China; for all the flaws in Obama's trip last November, he did at least unequivocally support Internet freedom. If the administration is serious about promoting Internet freedom, however, both in China and elsewhere, it must match its rhetoric with concrete action. There are two specific steps the administration should take: the first is to file suit against China in the WTO over its Internet policy; the second is to support the Global Online Freedom Act.
China's censorship is not only wrong, it is causing American companies to lose money. The Chinese government can--and does--block access to a variety of websites, and many of the sites the government routinely blocks are foreign. And it's not just foreign media that is blocked, it's sites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Picasa. Playing by China's rules offers little protection; even while Google.cn was still self-censoring results, it was subjected to repeated service interruptions and public condemnation by the Chinese government. Meanwhile, the Chinese-based Baidu continued to increase its market share. This seems a clear violation of China's commitments under the WTO to open its markets to foreign competition. The US recently won a similar suit at the WTO against China regarding print media; I would urge the Obama administration to challenge China again. China has benefited enormously from its membership in the WTO. It should play by the rules.
Not all repressive regimes are also members of the WTO, so this strategy will not work globally. That is why the Obama administration's endorsement of the Global Online Freedom Act, or GOFA (HR 275), is also critical. GOFA would make it illegal for US companies to provide information on specific Internet-users to countries that censor the Internet; it would also force US-based companies to inform the US government of their participation in censorship in repressive societies. This would not preclude US companies from marketing inside these repressive societies, rather, it would require that these companies are transparent in the ways in which they cooperate with these repressive governments.
There are those who fret that this would lead to US companies pulling out of these societies entirely. They argue that this will cause US companies to lose money, and say further that it is better for companies like Google to be available in a censored form than not at all. To counter the first argument, as I mentioned above, US companies are already losing money in Internet-restricting countries. In the long-run, they will be better off competing on an equal playing field, and thus should accept short-term losses if they will lead to a more open Internet. As for the argument that some Google is better than no Google, the censored Google.cn launched in 2006, and the Chinese government has only tightened its grip since that time. In fact, Google was once one of the biggest proponents of this argument, and has itself changed course.
If we as a nation truly view freedom of speech as a human right, we have a duty to empower the citizens of other nations to realize that right. We have seen that the Obama administration is willing to make Internet freedom a priority in terms of its diplomacy. Bringing suit against China in the WTO and supporting GOFA legislation would show that this is a true priority of the administration. The Internet is a remarkable tool for the advancement of freedom of speech, as well as for holding corrupt and repressive governments to account. Brave netizens from Iran to Saudi Arabia to China deserve our support.