“China’s newest export: Internet censorship”

Another piece from David Rohde, who posts about a deeply worrying trend:

China’s system is a potent, vast and sophisticated network of computer, legal and human censorship. The Chinese model is spreading to other authoritarian regimes. And governments worldwide, including the United States, are aggressively trying to legislate the Internet.

“There is a growing trend toward Internet censorship in a range of countries,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a prominent online democracy advocate and author of the forthcoming book “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.” “The same technology that helps secure your network from attack, that actually enables you to censor your network also.”

The problem is not software or hardware developed in a secret Chinese government laboratory. Recent news reports have uncovered American and European companies selling surveillance technologies to Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Thailand and other governments that block the web and brutally suppress dissent.

A core problem is the pursuit of the almighty online dollar. An extraordinary story in The Guardian introduced readers to Jerry Lucas, the president of TeleStrategies, a Virginia company that organizes conferences around the world where firms sell surveillance and other technologies to governments. In an interview, Lucas said companies have no ethical obligation to determine if their products are being sold to regimes that will use them to suppress dissent.

“That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country,” he told the reporter. “We’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”

A morning coffee with a prominent Chinese blogger brought to life the success of the Chinese model and the chilling intersection of modern communication and surveillance. The blogger, who asked not to be named, said the Chinese government’s “Great Firewall” is succeeding. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are banned in China, but the government allows the Chinese computer firm Sina Weibo to operate microblogs that are the mirror image of Twitter.

Sina Weibo’s CEO, in an interview with Forbes Asia, said the company has as many as 100 employees working 24 hours a day to track and block user content, in order to avoid running afoul of the government.

The blogger said that basing the servers in China made it possible for the Chinese government to allow microblogging but maintain control. “Put the server in your hands, the data in your hands,” he said. “The people are happy but they don’t overthrow you.”

He said that when he blogs in English, electronic and human censors largely ignore his work. When he expresses dissent in Chinese, the content is blocked by programs that search the web for banned terms, such as “Tiananmen Square,” “Tibet,” or “Falun Gong.”

“They just stop the topic,” the blogger said. “They have good search engines for the different topics.”

The “well it isn’t our fault if our products just happen to enable governments seeking to censor information, find dissidents, and crush dissent- what could we do, we’re just a for-profit company trying to make some money!” argument is one of the most loathsome things I’ve ever read. Their actions have real-life consequences for people around the world, but corporations exist to serve the dollar, not the human being. Are Western arms companies allowed to do business with these governments? If not, why should these companies be allowed to do so?! And beyond the law, why is it that they can get away with it without being shamed out of society by everyone else in the country?!

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2 Comments

Filed under capitalism, censorship, internet

2 responses to ““China’s newest export: Internet censorship”

  1. Rebecca MacKinnon rules.

    Couldn’t agree more about the “we’re for profit! nothing else matters!” attitude that’s unfortunately endemic in the corporate world. One of the foundations I freelance for just helped fund the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference (https://www.rightscon.org/), with exactly this issue in mind: the engineers and tech company executives who make products that can deeply affect human rights all around the world (and in America!) need to understand their responsibilities. The goal of the conference was to put them in the same room as human rights activists and policymakers who deal with abuses and abusive technologies daily. Didn’t go myself, but I hear it was surprisingly successful. I suspect that, as technology further and further outstrips governments’ abilities to understand it, private companies and engineers will grow increasingly powerful in this area – and thus, securing their partnership on human rights issues will be at least as important as, for example, getting the US government to condemn an event.

    • Wow, that’s a great idea for a conference. I’m kinda gritting my teeth seeing Yahoo on the list of sponsors after their role in Shi Tao getting imprisoned, but maybe they’ve changed since then? Cool stuff either way.

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