Google, China and the U.S: Did Clinton’s Internet freedom speech backfire?



As we’ve been telling people for six years, the global
governance of the internet is creating geopolitics of the highest order. With
the Google-China rupture and the subsequent responses of the US and Chinese
territorial governments, it is clear that the issues of cybercrime, censorship,
trade and technology policy are converging on the problem of transnational governance
of internet-based communications.

As much as we appreciated Secretary Clinton’s
ringing endorsement of internet freedom, however, to solve this problem we
really need states to step back from the Internet. If this becomes an
inter-state political matter, a clash between the Chinese and US nation-state
apparatuses, at best only one state can win and for sure we, the world’s
people, will lose. Politicians leading symbolic, flag-waving campaigns for
their country’s values only provoke the same, polarizing response in the other
country.

China’s
response to Google’s open break with it was muted and slow at first. It was
clear that they did not expect it and were not prepared with a response. China is not
used to corporations that refuse to kow-tow. Better yet, there was evidence
that Internet users in China
supported Google’s move, and were willing to express their desire for a
relatively uncensored Google to remain in their country. As a Wall Street Journal article noted, “An
editorial published on the Web site of state-run newspaper Global Times [immediately
after Google’s announcement] said Google's withdrawal could ‘imply a setback to
China and a serious loss to China's Net culture,’ while others acknowledged
that China's Internet market has benefitted from Google's presence.”

The entry of Hilary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, into
the fray with her January 21 speech at the Newseum, a museum of journalism
devoted to the American first amendment, on the other hand, provoked an
immediate, coordinated and angry response from the Chinese state. 

Those without a historical perspective on both China and international communications policy
may not have fully appreciated the nature of China’s response. China released
its inner Mao Tse-tung, employing 1970s-era rhetoric about “imperialism.” I
haven’t read any of the Chinese yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the term
“spiritual pollution” was being bandied about again. (The anti-spiritual
pollution campaign was launched in 1983 by the enemies of market reforms in
China as part of an attempt to weed out Western influence.) China also revived critiques of the “free flow
of information” and of U.S.
“imbalanced flows” dating back to the New World Information and Communication
Order
debates of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In general, China’s response was a deliberate attempt to
harness their people’s nationalism and to capitalize on still-salient feelings
of humiliation dating back to the dismemberment of China by foreign powers from
1880-1940.

If that succeeds, Hilary’s speech has backfired. Instead of
provoking a period of reflection in which the Chinese people hold their
leaders’ policies accountable for damage to their internet access, suddenly the
issue becomes American bullying.

The Chinese government’s response already seems to have
succeeded in neutralizing quite a few mushy-headed western leftists, who are
known for their ability to consider a hero anyone who criticizes market
economies and the United States regardless of the value and benefit of the policies
they promote (e.g., Hugo Chavez). The Chinese response pushed all the buttons
that make these folks move: the small, helpless 
<cough!> developing country against big, bad America; the idea
that people who criticize these “small, helpless” states are being brainwashed
by commercial corporate media; the distinction between culture and commerce and
the need for strong states to protect cultural “diversity” against the
depredations of those terrible market forces; the “forcible” export of American
values and ideas, etc.

The degree to which one can see through these arguments can
be considered a kind of Internet governance IQ test. There are so many things
wrong with them that it would take a paper, not a blog post, to enumerate them.
But these arguments are both a weapon and an expression
of a worldview rather than an articulation of a policy based on reality. In China’s case,
they are nothing but a political and ideological cover for the state’s nervous
censorship and repression of its own population. China’s censorship is directed at
blinding and managing its own people, not at protecting them from the American
government or American corporations. Access to information through Google is
initiated by Chinese users themselves, not blasted into their houses by
American radio towers. On the internet, culture and commerce and inextricably
linked, and any attempt to regulate or restrict access to digital goods and
services is motivated mostly by economic protectionism, not by any claim of
cultural diversity, for those policies limit and restrict user choices rather
than increasing them. Given that the internet gives users unparalleled control
over what they do and do not access, it is clear that it is the interests of a
ruling elite, not the people, which underlie all censorship and content
regulation policies. 

One correct accusation the Chinese made, however, is that
the U.S.
is as committed to cyber-war as the Chinese, and probably pioneered the
concept. That again speaks to the links to nation-states.

Our intention is not
to criticize Secretary Clinton. It was great to see the U.S. (finally)
articulate its commitment to internet freedom. We merely ask that US policy makers play to a global audience not a national one, and pay better
attention to the means to the end of internet freedom. Progress in Internet governance requires
new kinds of institutions centered in the global internet-using community
rather than in traditional nation-states. We heartily approve of her statement:
“…this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of
world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we
live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of
knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which
access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the
whims of censors.”It may be that the best way to achieve those goals is for
national governments to step into the background and coordinate and harmonize
their differences in ways that facilitate global governance, cooperation and
communication among civil society and business, rather than becoming
militaristic partisans.

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