Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Virtual Great Wall

University of Virginia law professor Tim Wu has written a terrific article for Slate on how Communist China seeks to control the Internet. His point is that Beijing is trying to do far more than merely censor content: its goal is to isolate China's part of the Web. In effect, the Chinese regime is trying to erect a virtual great wall around its country's portion of the Internet:

Kristof is right that China's blogging rules can be sidestepped by experts. But what he and others overlook is a larger assault on the identity of the Internet itself. The Web was conceived as one global medium, by its nature open and free. But countries like China are pushing hard to divide that global network into a system of Balkanized national networks. Censorship of the sort Microsoft acceded to is grabbing headlines, but the more important restrictive measures are taking place quietly—and quietly succeeding.

Consider filtering. Blocking the Democracy Times at the Chinese border is kid stuff. The Chinese state accomplishes much more by filtering not just Web content, but the tools that allow the Internet to function: search engines, chat rooms, blogs, and even e-mail. The idea is to make filtering a basic fact of the Web. And filtering a tool like a search engine has the benefit of subtlety, because to most people searches will feel free even when they're not. How many of us can tell when something goes missing in a Google result?

Professor Wu's conclusion is not an optimistic one:

China's long-term vision is clear: an Internet that feels free and acts as an engine of economic progress yet in no way threatens the Communist Party's monopoly on power. With every passing day the Chinese Internet reflects that vision more closely. It portends a future for the Web that we're only beginning to understand—one in which powerful countries refashion the global network to suit themselves.

The Filtered Future

In the long run, I don't believe China's attempt to combine an information age economy with a Leninist one-party dictatorship will last. Part of me fears, however, that Professor Wu might be right. So far, the Internet has been a powerful tool for fostering the free exchange of information and ideas. If regimes such as China's are successful in changing that, the consequences would be felt well beyond Asia.


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