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[liberationtech] The Myopia of excluding censors: The tale of a self-defeating petition - Opinion - Al Jazeera English
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Fri Feb 8 01:29:55 PST 2013
The Myopia of excluding censors: The tale of a self-defeating petition
Closing US borders in the name of openness does not create more
freedom, but creates more divisions, writes author.
Last Modified: 06 Feb 2013 06:58
In the last week, thousands of people have signed a petition on
Whitehouse.gov titled, "People who help internet censorship, builders
of Great Firewall in China for example, should be denied entry to the
The petition proposes that the United States deny entry for people who
"use their skills and technology for blocking people to use internet".
It goes on to say that "as a responsible government [that] has always
valued freedom, it [sic] reasonable to deny it".
This petition is a horrible idea and I hope it does not gain anywhere
close to the 100,000 signatures needed by February 24 for the petition
to trigger a White House response.
I came across the petition on Libtech, a great listserv out of the
Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. The person
who circulated this petition works on "Internet Freedom" at the Bureau
of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor (DRL) of the US State Department.
I am shocked that someone from the US State Department is circulating
this petition, listing their affiliation, and making it appear as if
the US State Department approved the petition. This person forwarded
it to the listserv without a disclaimer that circulation does not
suggest US government’s endorsement. This person also pointed out that
the petition needs 92,204 more signatures to reach its goal. While
this person did not explicitly endorse the petition, these actions
But even more troubling than a semi-official circulation is the idea
that we should be denying people the opportunity to enter the US
because they are associated with censorship.
Public face of censorship
How do we even define someone as a person "who help(s) internet
censorship" and is a “builder of the Great Firewall”? Fang Binxing is
the architect of China’s extensive censorship network, widely known as
the “Father of China’s Great Firewall”. This petition would deny him
entry into the US.
But Fang Binxing is only one person who has become the public face of
censorship. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT)
oversees and implements filtering software. Would anyone associated
with the MIIT be banned from coming into the US?
The MIIT oversees the China Internet Network Information Center
(CNNIC). Often referred to as the equivalent of the US’ FCC, CNNIC
manages administrative affairs such as domain registry and
anti-phishing. CNNIC also has a research arm that is similar to the
Pew Internet Research Center, producing statistical reports about the
Chinese internet that researchers and journalists often cite.
I spent a summer as a National Science Foundation Fellow doing
ethnographic fieldwork at CNNIC in Beijing. The people who oversaw
CNNIC relished the chances they had to go to conferences outside of
China. Conferences provided CNNIC officials an important source of
firsthand information and experience of the world beyond China.
One of the most important things I learned from my time at CNNIC is
that these people whom we call "censors" are much more aware of the
world than we in the West often portray them to be. This should inform
policy decisions to maintain open exchanges with officials who oversee
the Chinese internet.
This petition would deny all CNNIC researchers and officials the
opportunity to come to the US for conferences and events. Such a
petition is backwards. We should be encouraging Fang Binxing to come
to the US. He should witness what a society with limited censorship
looks like and be a part of the discussions about internet freedom at
internet governance conferences.
Internet tech conferences are a lot like track two diplomacy. They
bring together people who have opposing views to offer up insights or
Just as much as it is important for officials from authoritarian
regimes to attend conferences in the US, it is also important for
Americans to go to conferences that are held in authoritarian regimes.
Internet freedom conferences
In 2005, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held
in Tunisia, an authoritarian society at the time. In 2012, the
Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was held in Azerbaijan, still an
Would we want these very same countries to turn around and deny US
citizens the opportunity to enter just because we engage in
Sarah Kendzior argues that there is a very good reason why internet
policy conferences are held in authoritarian states.
In her article, she points to editorials that asked why a conference
on internet freedom was taking place in a dictatorship. Kendzior
argues that internet freedom conferences should always take place in
authoritarian regimes because to do so holds all stakeholders
accountable, "such a gathering holds accountable the claims of all
sides - the Azerbaijani government, which proclaims to promote free
speech while punishing those who speak freely; the international
media, which decries the choice of host country while ignoring it
otherwise; and the delegates, whose newfound willingness to help
Azerbaijanis needs to be borne out in practice".
In the same way that these forums raise awareness of a host country's
issues, visits to the US could do the same for Chinese officials.
Increased contact with people and places outside of one’s own
authoritarian regime is an excellent opportunity for government
officials to understand what a much less censored society looks like.
Here's the thing, just as much as many in the US find it hard to
imagine living in a censored society, it is even harder for people who
grow up in a censored society to imagine what a largely open society
looks like. And it is very likely that officials, like Fang Binxing,
who grow up in a family with close ties to the party bureaucracy, have
been indoctrinated with regime theory from a young age. The worst
thing we could do is to create policy that prevents them from seeing
and experiencing other countries' policies and perspectives.
Even though this petition has not yet gained traction, it is still
troubling that some people thought this was a good idea. Closing our
borders in the name of openness does not create more freedom; it only
creates more divisions.
Tricia Wang is a China- and US-based cultural sociologist who uses a
range of ethnographic methods to create commercially relevant insights
about people's interaction with the internet. Her writing and talks
are available here.
Follow her on Twitter: @triciawang
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not
necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
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