My colleagues Rebecca MacKinnon and John Palfrey have an excellent op-ed in this week’s Newsweek International, on the role of US internet companies in China. I was in Silicon Valley this past week, as representatives from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco were being grilled by a congressional panel, and I can report that every single meeting I had – at universities, foundations, corporations, and even over brunch with friends – touched in part on the current controversy over US corporate involvement in China.
My friends get several key things right in their piece, including the observation that Chinese companies are beginning to make real money from building tools that allow governments to censor the Internet. This is an important point that I don’t think is emphasized enough in discussions about Chinese internet censorship. There’s a tendency to lump China with other nations that filter their citizen’s access to the internet, like Saudi Arabia or Burma.
There’s a critical difference: Chinese companies are perfectly capable of building technology to filter the web, whether or not US companies export this technology. This doesn’t mean that US companies should have a blanket excuse to help China censor… but it does make the equation far more complex for China than for Burma. If US companies pull out of China, expect Huawei and ZTE to continue developing routers that filter “undesirable” content, Baidu to produce a heavily censored search engine and Bokee to produce a blogging site that prevents users from saying things the State Security Bureau prefers they wouldn’t speak about.
The fact that Chinese companies are working hard to build an alternative to the (technically global, but largely American and European) internet adds some serious complexity to this situation. Rebecca and JP end their piece with a caution that we’re heading to an era of “Internets”, not “The Internet”. This is a bit of rhetorical simplification on their part – we’re there already. In countries that effectively control their population’s access to the Internet – like China, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and others – there are hundreds or thousands of sites that simply don’t exist on the Internet because no one can reach them. As a result, the Chinese internet is a subset of the public Internet.
In some countries, it’s apparent that net users are only getting access to a subset of the sites they want to use. Just watch Saudi bloggers get upset when the firewall blocks access to Flickr – they’re well aware of what’s being blocked (the Saudi firewall states clearly when a site is being blocked, and offers users a chance to appeal the blocking decision) and what they’re not allowed to access.
The Chinese firewall works very differently. It doesn’t transparently deny access to websites – it makes it look like those sites are unresponsive. Given the choice between an uncensored but unresponsive google.com and a censored, but responsive Baidu.com, it’s easy to understand how Baidu would crowd Google out of the market. Many Chinese users don’t feel like they’re dealing with a limited Internet… just a Chinese one.
There’s some reason for hope in this scenario, and this hope doesn’t neccesarily require Google or Yahoo to come to their senses and reverse policy decisions. Hanging out with Xiao Qiang of China Digital Times this past week, I was interested to hear Xiao’s theory that “information brokers” are emerging on the Chinese internet. These are people who understand how to get around the firewall by using proxy servers and, in many cases, can read English, giving them access to a great deal of controversial content that Chinese authorities don’t bother to censor. More importantly, they’re very good at sharing this information in ways that escapes censorship – printing out key web pages and distributing them on paper, using SMS messages and creative strategies to show dissent on their weblogs. (Xiao tells a story about a prominent blogger who linked to a story from a state news agency. The story stated. “Filtering of internet content for political reasons does not take place in China”. The blogger linked to the content with the comment, “Well, that’s good news!” Evidently, the censors aren’t opposed to sarcasm.)
Information brokers are a natural outgrowth of multiple Internets – brokers are people who can work in two different Internets, retrieving information from one and distributing it in the other. Their emergence in China is good news for proponents of free speech, democracy and greater openness. But they’re also the harbinger of a future where it makes less and less sense to talk about “the Internet” and more sense to talk about “this Internet” and “that Internet”.