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?