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[liberationtech] Nussbaum on Internet freedom

Terry Winograd winograd at
Fri Jan 22 14:27:14 PST 2010

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on January 22

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on the universality of
Internet Freedom is a wonderful speech that I personally applaud but
it is seriously flawed when applied to China and to Google in China.
Absolute internet freedom is a value widely shared among hundreds of
millions of North Americans, Latin Americans and Europeans but not
among the vast, vast, vast majority of Chinese.

I recently spent two weeks in Shanghai and Beijing talking with
designers and academics. Here is my sense of how internet censorship
and “freedom” work in China. The stereotype of of a distant, old,
militaristic censor shutting down blogs and web sites on whim is
incorrect. Both the young. high-tech entrepreneurs developing new
online businesses and the government censors come from the same good
universities, are extremely well-educated and know each other
personally. The two sides are in constant contact every day, pushing
and pulling, reshaping the zone and focus of censorship. In general,
both sides, mostly men in their 20s and early 30s, I am told, are
trying to increase the space of what is allowed. I am also told that
one problem with Google in China was that it was not tied into this
network of censor and censored as well as Baidu and other Chinese web
companies. And Google didn’t share the accepted culture of dynamic
censorship, further antagonizing the censors.

Two weeks is not a long time in any country, but I did take away the
conclusion that for nearly all Chinese, Tibet and Taiwan are as much a
part of China as Hawaii and New Mexico are of the US. Government
censorship of individuals and groups calling for Tibetan independence
is widely applauded, not criticized. It is not an internet space that
the younger generation in China wants expanded. However, there is an
enormous amount of expressed anger at the rich and powerful all over
the net. And throughout contemporary Chinese painting.

I remember going to the 798 art district of Beijing and looking at one
installation that listed words. The first word was “propaganda.” The
second was “advertising.” The flow of other words expressed the
artists conclusion that two were basically the same—messages from
powerful institutions designed to persuade you to think one way and
behave in a particular way.

In the US, internet users have no problem with letting companies flood
their computers at will with cookies that track their behavior and
indicate their state of mind. They have no problem allowing companies
to use gps to know exactly where they are at any point in time. But
should the government be allowed to do this? Never. This is a cultural
decision as much as a political one.

I totally agree with Secretary of State Hillary in keeping the
internet free but mandating it as a “universal” right is a reach too
far. European nations mandate universal health care as a “universal”
right. How do Americans feel about that?


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