I did a spot on Neil Cavuto’s weekend show today (Actually David Asman ran the show. Neil is at the beach this week.) Our subject was China and the Internet.
As you know, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco have all been roasted in the US press in recent weeks for their role in cooperating with Chinese laws restricting the information that can be transmitted into China via the Internet.
After more than 10 million miles of travel to dozens of countries I am irreversibly committed to the idea that personal liberty is the most precious gift on earth. I love personal freedom. I deplore attempts to control behavior and information, whether mine or others.
China’s government does attempt to censure information flows within China on the Internet, largely by blocking the transmission of web pages using keywords that are objectionable to the government. In practice, this amounts to censuring political discussion and pornographic material.
I use the word “attempt” because, as any parent can tell you, controlling the communication of young people is impossible. That’s just as true in China as in the US. The kids there have cell phones too. And like our kids they don’t talk with each other any more; they just send IM’s (Instant Messages).
They are also good at circumventing restrictions by inventing new words to replace the keywords the censors dislike.
Young people I have spoken with in China (they actually “talk” with old people like me who don’t know how to IM) tell me they have easy access to 95% of the information on the Internet, although they sometimes resort to Internet Cafe’s to do so.
My personal experience thus far in China has been very good. I have not yet searched for information and received the dreaded “content removed” page. But that could also reflect the tame appetites of an aging economist logging on in a western hotel.
It’s unfortunate that the Chinese government still feels the need to censor information content–even just the 5% still to go. I hope that before long the benefits of widespread growth in China leads to the complete free flow of information. Trends are definitely moving in that direction. Until that day, however, I will continue traveling, doing business, and working with the young people in China to help them grow.
In the meantime, there are a few things worth keeping in mind.
We need to protect free speech and other liberties at home too. In the US, we cherish free speech as one of our basic rights. But free speech is always under attack. We cannot recite the pledge of allegiance in our schools. We cannot have nativity scenes in front of our court houses. Our phones can be tapped without a court order. And the FCC is issuing rulings about “decency”. I have even been bleeped on Fox News!
These erosions of personal liberty at home have been accelerating since the terrorist attacks in 2001. I am personally unwilling to trade any of the liberties that make living in America so unique for the illusion of temporary security.
It’s also important to remember that free speech and other liberties are not all-or-none questions. Earlier this year, for example, there was a serious chemical spill in Harbin, China. Local government officials initially attempted to suppress the information. They were successful for 6 days, but the kids with the cell phones and the bloggers finally broke the story; the officials were sacked. In that instance we can measure the impact of government censorship; it has slowed the speed of information from the speed of light to 6 days.
Remember, we don’t always have speed of light information here either.
Last week, when Vice President Cheney had his accidental discharge incident, our government suppressed the story for 24 hours. So one measure of relative censorship is to say that information in the US is 6 times more open that in China.
Finally, there is a new book on the subject that I highly recommend. The Carnegie Endowment has published “Open Networks, Closed Regimes: the impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule” by Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor Boas. The authors examine the impact of the Internet on policies in China, Cuba, Singapore, Vietnam, Burma, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Their conclusion is somewhat surprising. The Internet is a tool, nothing more. And although the Internet makes it more difficult to control information, it also gives governments a new avenue for delivering controlled messages to their people. In the end, it is not the Internet but people who drive political change that increases liberties.
I am optimistic. I remember my surprise many years ago when, at breakfast in Saudi Arabia, I opened the Financial Times to find holes in the pages where state censors had individually cut out stories that offended their government (presumably with those little round-ended safety scissors we used to use in school). Today, my friends there have satellite TV dishes, high speed Internet, and Bloomberg terminals.
None of this excuses the bad behavior of corporate managers or state sponsors. It just means that if we want to keep the freedoms we have and help people around the world get more we are going to have to work for it.