"A man who has committed a mistake and doesn't correct it, is committing another mistake." Confucius, Chinese teacher, philosopher and political theorist, 551-479 BC
Time and time again, China has tested the digital world, trying to stifle its free information flow and control the resources that are open to its people. There are a long list of methods China has employed to clamp down on access. They have used a variety of technological tricks, some of which we know about and many of which we never will, and some good old-fashioned coercion measures (from fines to imprisonment) designed to pressure content owners to keep content in line with what they deem acceptable. For example, in 2008, the year the summer Olympics took place in China, it was discovered that China had been monitoring Skype communications and a handful of bloggers whose commentary was unfavorable to China during the Olympics were detained. (Probably not so coincidentally, they were released and their blog postings removed only a little while later.)
China employs thousands of government workers in these efforts, and, to date, have been fairly successful in achieving the results they desire. It seems when faced with the potential entices of the Chinese market, businesses have found themselves in some precarious positions and made some, in my opinion, dubious calls, in efforts to comply with Chinese requirements.
For instance, when Google opened up shop in China, they agreed to censor some of their search results. Yahoo was questioned by Congress, in 2007, for turning over e-mails that led to the imprisonment of Chinese dissidents. In 2008, Cisco Systems was also questioned by Congress after it was suggested, due to a Cisco sales presentation that surfaced, that they were potentially helping the Chinese government modify their networking equipment to block and censor Internet traffic (it should be noted it was an accusation they Cisco vehemently denied). YouTube has found its service shut down several times; presumably to avoid any glimpses of content that China deemed unacceptable. (Probably not surprising, the last shut down lasted through the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, along with the blocking of Twitter.)
In 2009, the Chinese government issued a directive that would have required the installation of filtering software, nicknamed "Green Dam," on every personal computer (PC) sold in the Chinese market. Almost comically, they proposed this requirement under the auspices of protecting children from harmful Internet content. It was sharply criticized by governments around the world on a variety of fronts, from free speech impingement to potential security compromises to free-trade violations. This is due to the reality that if loaded onto every PC, it would give the Chinese government unprecedented control over an individual's personal computing use. While China backed-off of its deadline (July 1, 2009) for implementation, in the face of pressure from Chinese computer users, computer manufacturers, and governments, it's evident they have not been rethinking their overall objectives - to control their citizen's online access.
But it seems the proverbial straw that broke the camels back occurred last week for Google. Taken from the blog of Google SVP, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond, they had identified a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google." After further investigation they found it was part of a wider attack designed to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. (An good disection of the attacks can be found here)They have since "discovered that the accounts of dozens of US-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties," which goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech."
As of right now, there is no international standard, nor universal agreement on what is acceptable or not in terms of free speech in the digital world; we are all treading in un-chartered waters. There's the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was drafted in 1948 and provides a basic framework, but little practical guidance in this Digital Information Age. And declarations, such as The Global Network Initiative (GNI), while noble in intent, have provided very few specifics and virtually no repurcussions for abuses.
But the threat to freedom of speech in the digital world is very real. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, questionable restrictions on the network can lead to potential fettering of its possibilities and major encroachments on individual personal freedoms. It's a very slippery slope.
So, I want to applaud Google for making a stand and drawing a line. They announced, "We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China."
While we still have to see what will come of this proclamation, but the fact they have said they are willing to walk away represents a clear departure from trying to conduct business as usual. The Obama administration has since issued a statement of support for Google and reiterated Internet freedom as a priority. So, while we may not see a huge sea change right away, this represents a step in the right direction and has reignited a much needed debate around personal freedoms. It sends a message that it is not okay to simply work within the confines of China's increasingly restrictive rules and hopefully it will improve the willingness of China and other governments to work more with foreign companies and governments on these issues.
Everyone should be able to participate and be heard; the right of free speech is an ideal we need to fight for in the digital world, and it starts with everyone having the right to freely connect to the unfettered information of the network. This latest attack should serve as a wake up call for companies, policy makers and governments around the world to be more bold and work to protect and improve the rights and opportunities of citizens everywhere.