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[liberationtech] The Myopia of excluding censors: The tale of a self-defeating petition - Opinion - Al Jazeera English

kseel28440 at kseel28440 at
Thu Feb 28 11:16:23 PST 2013

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-----Original Message-----
From: x z <xhzhang at>
To: liberationtech <liberationtech at>
Sent: Fri, Feb 8, 2013 2:17 pm
Subject: Re: [liberationtech] The Myopia of excluding censors: The tale of a self-defeating petition - Opinion - Al Jazeera English


I am an ardent supporter for that GFW petition, and I feel compelled to write about it *again*, in reply to Tricia Wang's article.

There are three major issues in this piece.

1. The intent of the petition is badly interpreted and exaggerated by Tricia even in the literal sense. Tricia claiming "This petition would deny all CNNIC researchers and officials the opportunity to come to the US for conferences and events" is appalling. The petition is for those "people who help internet censorship". Tricia herself argues using several paragraphs that many tasks in CNNIC are not censorship related!

2. A lot of people, including Tricia and many on this list, misunderstand the spirit of the petition. It is naive to perceive that many people, including many of the signatories of this petition, realistically think such a petition can make US government to actually adopt such an entry-denial policy. Like I mentioned in my previous email on this topic, this petition is a *symbolic* one. Its goal is to show to the world that many of Chinese netizens care, and it is a way to mobilize (and hopefully organize) us.

3. This article repeated again and again that engagement with China officials (including Fang Binxing) is beneficial. I don't disagree with this, but Tricia greatly overestimated such benefit. Most of China's officials, especially those overseeing censorship, know very well what an open society looks like. This knowledge *reinforces* their belief in their censorship policies, contrary to what Tricia may think. The present China is not Soviet Union in the cold war era. China's ideology system is way more robust.


2013/2/8 Collin Anderson <collin at>


I appreciated the short articulation of this counterargument at the time of the petition being posted and this article summarizes it well. Firstly, unfortunately while Libtech has fostered an impression of being a private network, it has grown beyond that over the past three years, into a very public community -- at times it still often feels like a closed, personal community. I think we all agree that State Department employees are entailed to a right of an independent opinion, and the only misstep was perhaps sending from a work email address with an automatic signature. A brief history of the drama of Internet Freedom programs and China makes it clear that this is something that the US Government would never have the political will to adopt, much less endorse. We may do well to give such people the benefit of the doubt that they had intended to provoke conversation and reach out to the community, rather than encourage participation. Otherwise, a perspective may be lost.

That being said, the post and petition should have, but did not, provoked a legitimate discussion about incongruences in American foreign policy toward states that practice repression of media and Internet communications. Case in point, on the exact day that Tricia Wang, of whom I am a longtime fan, published her argument, the Department of Treasury announced the designation of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), Iranian Cyber Police, Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA), Iran Electronics Industries (IEI) and Ezzatollah Zarghami, head of IRIB, for their participation in activities that "restrict or deny the free flow of information to or from the Iranian people." These listings follow previous designations by companies and persons responsible for the surveillance and disruption of information networks under American laws, such as the TRA, CISADA and GHRAVITY EO. 

I was a vocal advocate for these actions and wrote extensively on their justification, however, I was also left questioning whether it is morally justifiable that I have not spoke out with similar passion against the Bahraini MOI. I would ask whether Ms. Wang feels that Treasury's actions on Wednesday are similarly unjustifiable within her philosophical argument?

Of minor importance, I do believe that the article over-interprets the extent of the applicability of institutional sanctions on employees, particularly low-level individuals. However, the tragedy of Treasury sanctions is that they are specifically designed to be unclear, and so let's allow that it may chill interactions with said researchers.

However, more broadly. At the time of its original attention, the notion of travel restrictions was referred to as "coercive force" -- a label which I fundamentally disagree with. States and publics have a fundamental right to determine what activities that they directly or indirectly facilitate, such as through the provision of financial transaction, technical services, et al. The notion that Mr. Fang would come to Washington and be awestruck by the wonders of a free press seems optimistic, considering 1.) my recollection of him admitting to using VPNs and 2.) his substantial investment in the status quo. Therefore, how does Ms. Wang react to the notion of sanctions as signaling of expectations -- that designating Fang Binxing would not be about making his life less comfortable per-say, but calling attention to the fact that the level of censorship practiced by China is in contravention to basic obligations under international human rights conventions? 


I hope my former International Relations professor reads this list.


On Fri, Feb 8, 2013 at 4:29 AM, Yosem Companys <companys at> wrote:

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 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
suggest endorsement.

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
authoritarian society.

Would we want these very same countries to turn around and deny US
citizens the opportunity to enter just because we engage in
anti-censorship practices?

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.

Al Jazeera
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Collin David Anderson | @cda | Washington, D.C.

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