There must be some raised eyebrows in the IT community this week, with
the opening of an American offensive against internet censorship in
China. The state department has established a taskforce
to “help US technology companies protect freedom of expression in
countries like China that censor online content.” Meanwhile, a
congressional hearing on the ethics of doing business in China saw an attack on companies for “helping China to subdue political strife in return for access to its internet market.”

This scrutiny is a welcome development: Chinese censorship practice is an outrage, as is western compliance with it. A BBC report
this morning quotes a Chinese spokesman brazenly asserting that “only a
‘very few’ foreign websites were blocked, and that was mostly because
they contained pornography or terrorist information.” It then
demolishes him with one matter-of-fact line: “The BBC News website
continues to be blocked in China.”

But America does not have clean hands when it comes to internet
censorship. Measures such as the 1998 Child Online Protection Act,
fuelled by moral panic over pornography, have sought to impose
draconian controls on internet service providers. Although that law was
blocked by the Supreme Court, the US justice department has not given
up, and last month sought a court order
to force Google to provide search data that could support its
pro-censorship case. If it succeeds, then it is expected that the
precedent will also be used for “anti-terrorism” measures.

Also still going strong is the American government’s campaign
to defend intellectual “property” on the internet, which gives short
shrift to free speech in the interests of protecting the privileges of
major US media corporations.

Perhaps not coincidentally, censorship has also become the subject of a rare internal debate
in China. An open letter from 12 “former Communist Party officials and
senior scholars” has warned the government that “depriving the public
of freedom of speech will bring disaster for our social and political
transition and give rise to group confrontation and social unrest”.

It would be good if the defenders of freedom in China could be confident that the rest of the world was on their side.

Peter Fray

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