12/06/2013 01:50 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

Internet Censorship: A Threat to Economic Progress in China?

The final installment of the "Blog Blog Project" for 2013, where I have posted student voices from the University of Delaware, is below. In the class, "Digital Technology & Politics," students have been evaluating how governments manage the Internet, and in this blog, Emma Haberern, a Senior Political Science and Gender Studies major, examines the economic consequences of China's extensive Internet censorship.

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have helped to ignite an information revolution by allowing individuals around the world to use the Internet for communicating, learning, teaching, and protesting. However, these endless possibilities pose a threat to oppressive governments, and as a result, technology use has been severely limited in some nations. The Chinese government's strict regulation of Internet exemplifies these limitations within the context of an increasingly powerful nation. While the incredible economic progress of China over the past several decades suggests it is a threat to the status of the United States as the world's superpower, censorship may stop upward progress in its tracks.

The expansion of the Internet in recent years has rendered this technology necessary to the day-to-day lives of people throughout China and the world, and that dependence has become a significant tool of power for oppressive governments. Beyond establishing a great firewall to block thousands of sites from being accessed within China, the government also works to prevent opposition on social media websites and blogs. The government listens to what citizens are saying online, thereby enabling officials "to address issues and problems before they get out of control" (see Rebecca MacKinnon's book, "Consent of the Networked"). In early September, a Chinese judge re-interpreted Internet restrictions so that any individual spreading "slanderous rumors" on the Internet that are seen by 5,000 people or shared by 500 people could face up to 10 years in prison. This stricter interpretation of Internet limitations indicates that an open Internet China is not on the immediate horizon.

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt recently made headlines when he visited Hong Kong and suggested that China's prevention of free expression online may pose a threat to continuing economic progress for the country. Although many people may not connect the Internet to economic success, Schmidt suggests that the limitations placed on online speech by Chinese officials will prevent the country from overcoming the "middle-income trap." This occurs when countries move up from a place of poverty but are unable to further progress, leaving them trapped on a plateau below higher-income nations. Schmidt seems to be a celebrant, as his words echo the notion that the Internet "has the power to determine outcomes" for people, countries, and the entire world, although McChesney argues that this perspective is "ultimately unsatisfactory" in a complex reality (see McChesney's "Digital Disconnect").

Schmidt criticized the 500-repost rule as well as other restrictions placed on citizens' words and behavior on the Internet by the Chinese government. He suggested that in order to solve economic problems such as unemployment, nations require the "entrepreneurs" and "innovation" that an open Internet encourages. As the Chairman for such an economically successful company as Google understands, individuals must be allowed to think of fresh ideas when they use their technology. Extensive firewalls and harsh punishments for certain forms of expression prevent citizens from being able to make creative and helpful economic contributions through the Internet. Schmidt's warning to the Chinese government seems intended to persuade the Chinese government that there may be negative consequences of a closed and restrictive Internet that they had not previously considered. The tireless attempts to maintain power over citizens through Internet regulation and censorship may actually be threatening the economic power of the nation in an increasingly technological world. The Chinese government may soon discover that when you hold on to something too tightly, it is far more likely to slip right out of your hands.