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American Net-Imperialism and Chinese Internet Censorship - Struggling between Illusion of Security and Freedom Ideology

, by Martin Fischer

Google’s withdrawal from the Chinese market flared up a heated debate on the issue of human rights versus internet censorship. The USA pushed forward with very clear statements and set an aggressive mood for the upcoming debate. China refused to step back and criticises the US officials. Sooner or later the EU will have to take a position on the topic of freedom of speech, internet censorship and Human Rights.


On 13th January 2010 Google announced they would no longer put up with Chinese internet censorship. Chinese authorities responded and made it clear that Google will not be able to browse in China without their strict regulations. Google said they would rather leave the Chinese market than continue to put up with the censorship. On 18th January 2010, Chris Smith demanded a fast decision on a draft document called the „Global Online Freedom Act“ , which he introduced to the house of representatives on 6th May 2009. The draft includes the legal prohibition for American firms to cooperate with countries who oppress their citizens with censorship. It aims for international agreements to give unlimited access to the internet for all US citizens. 21st US Minister for Foreign Affairs Hillary Clinton compared internet censorship with a new “Iron Curtain”. The very next day China Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu responded and called Clintons critique unjustified and imperialistic. Between cold war rhetoric and the Chinese “golden shield”-firewall there is an exciting discussion on the use of the internet taking place.

Meanwhile the EU is in the mere process of collecting proposals on how to get a hold of the topic of modern media. For the internet debate I see two key actresses within the EU. The first lady of the new media will be Neelie Kroes, commissioner designate for the “digital agenda”. In the hearing she could not make many promises besides the engagement for a broadband initiative on a European scale. The digital agenda seems more like a keyword framework, than an actual policy field so far. A second women entering the debate might be Catherine Ashton, responsible for the EUs foreign affairs. The internet might not be a topic of external representation yet, but seeing the current USA-China conflict and the general international structure of the internet, the issue will be on the agenda soon! Depending if the conflict between China and the USA deepens the EU might have to take a stand on the topic as well; hopes are Ashton stops leaning back in time to make our EU position clear.

the EU might have to take a stand on the topic as well; hopes are Ashton stops leaning back in time to make our EU position clear

The USA has a strong claim for what they call “global online freedom”. Actually this is a matter of “net neutrality”, in a sense that the state is not to interfere with the web contents. The USA also accuses China of censorship and limiting the freedom of speech. The USA has a rather open net policy that usually is based on economic agreements, like “geoblocks” that restrict non-USA-inhabitants from seeing USA copyright contents. Second to that the political parties have strong influence on the biggest media and internet providers, best example is the FOX network, which is like the republicans broadcasting channel.

China on the other hand rather claims a standpoint of “net security”, in a sense of protecting and preventing their citizens from harmful web content. China calls America imperialistic and self-righteous. The Chinese justification is based on a wider definition of harmful information and strong influences of the state in the citizen’s everyday life.

Not only are the grounding state definitions very far apart from each other, the influence on the perception of general policy topics are immense. Even though you can find this debate in almost all states, the USA and China are two extreme poles. In the media you mostly will find the radical examples: Egypt imprisoning bloggers or the twitter messages from Iran. But also the EU has issues of online policies. Telecom package, ACTA and the upcoming SWIFT agreement come to mind. It is not so much a matter of EU policy yet but one of the member states themselves. Usually the debate starts on censorship issues. All states want to provide security to their citizens and limit the access to “illegal content”. France introduced a three strike rule and several states are following their example. Germany intends to put STOP signs online to block pages with contents that include child abuse. There are no common regulations on what content is considered harmful and which is not. This leads to possibilities such as using proxy servers to give false information and avoid geoblocks or national initiatives.

Not only are the grounding state definitions very far apart from each other, the influence on the perception of general policy topics are immense

Net-security is an issue within all states, yet net-neutrality or net-freedom is more an issue for individual users so far. The USA is pushing towards a positive direction but with very poor means and rather wrong intentions. An EU position should stand up for an open net-policy with as much freedom as possible for the users. The more free content the merrier: the blocking of web-content needs to be cut down to a minimum. The web is in a way too flexible and complex to fit it into common state regulations.

The more free content the merrier: the blocking of web-content needs to be cut down to a minimum

Neither the proposal of a global office against censorship in the White House is reasonable; since not even the USA is fulfilling the criteria they set. The USA do not censor pages yet and they should certainly work on data security issues. The white listing of the Chinese government is not a serious option either. White listing means to block all web contents and individually allow certain pages to show. This just provokes parallel structures, alternatives to the internet, which already exist and are completely unregulated. Unless the states find a possibility to allow free access for the users, the users will find their way to get it themselves, even further from the reach of the governments.

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