Friday, February 18, 2011

China berates US over Internet freedom

China has warned the US not to use calls for Internet freedom as an excuse to meddle in other countries' affairs. The The foreign ministry comments came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced an initiative to help dissidents around the world break through government Internet controls.

But the anger from Chinese authorities went beyond words as they sort to impose further censorship, limiting what could be said and discussed about Clinton's speech. Microblog posts have been censored and searches for Clinton have been thwarted and even the state news agency deleted an earlier story on the issue.

'Dictator's dilemma'

In her second major speech on Internet technology, Hillary Clinton called for the world community to adopt common standards for Internet use. Speaking at the George Washington university on Tuesday, she criticised those countries that sought to suppress its citizens through censorship of the Internet and online filtering.

She pointed particularly to the recent Internet-fuelled protests seen in Egypt and Tunisia which toppled leaders, and said such actions showed governments could no longer choose which freedoms to grant citizens.

"We believe that governments who have erected barriers to Internet freedom - whether they're technical filters or censorship regimes or attacks on those who exercise their rights to expression and assembly online - will eventually find themselves boxed in," she said.

Clinton said China, Iran and other countries faced a "dictator's dilemma" and risked being left behind as the rest of the world embraced new technologies [Full speech - US State Dept. / BBC / NYT / WSJ]

China reacts

China was swift in its reaction to the speech. Authorities blocked searches for any reference to Clinton on microblogging sites in China and even deleted posts issues by the US Embassy on China's version of Twitter.

In China, Twitter is blocked by the Beijing government. But similar, locally operated services like Sina Corp.'s Sina Weibo and Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s Tencent Weibo have attracted tens of millions of users and are emerging as a new battleground for control of information and media. Meanwhile Chinese websites are developing creative ways to filter content on microblogs in accordance with government regulations that are less conspicuous than other censorship tools. However, China's microbloggers are continually looking for new ways to evade the censors.

The US embassy has been using microblogs and other online services as public-relations tools in China since 2009, posting information about US customs and policies, amongst other things. Following Hillary Clinton's speech US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman posted several messages on Tencent Weibo. One remark stated that "Liberty and security are often presented as equal and opposite," and asked, "What do you think is more important, liberty or security?" Another post questioned whether other users agreed with Clinton that "freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace."

Some of the embassy's posts were reposted by Chinese Internet users, but the posts were soon deleted by government censors including those issued by Huntsman himself. In a statement he said, "We are disappointed that some Chinese Internet sites have decided to remove discussion of Secretary Clinton's Internet Freedom speech from their websites." He went on describe the blocking of an online discussion about Internet freedom as ironic.

There was no official comment from Chinese officials though it is clear that the government were paying close attention to the US embassy's posts as it does with other online discussions.

Beijing has tried to quash the discussion of events in Egypt, where an Internet-driven uprising felled another authoritarian regime. Clinton's speech highlighted Egypt, and said that China and other governments that censor the Internet "will eventually find themselves boxed in."

None of this was mentioned in China's state media. In fact the state news agency Xinhua removed an earlier story posted on its English language page. The story entitled "China responds to U.S. gov't accusations of Internet freedom" was live for less than a few hours before it was pulled. The link now shows a message saying "Sorry, this news has been deleted".

In the story reported on China's response to Clinton's speech. "China's foreign affairs spokesman on Thursday voiced opposition to any interference of the country's domestic affairs," part of the text read. In another tract it said, "Commenting on remarks by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday concerning China's Internet censorship, Ma (Zhaoxu) said China administrates the Internet according to the law."

Of course, Ma's comments were carried in many western news reports, though much was a repeat of a statement made last year when China accused Washington of "information imperialism" following a similar speech by Clinton in the wake of the row surrounding Google's pullout from China.


China has the world's largest Internet market, with some 457 million people online, though Internet restrictions prevent them accessing many western websites. Beijing uses extensive censorship controls, often referred to as the "Great Firewall of China", to stop access to material considered subversive or pornographic. However restrictions often go further with news websites and foreign social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare being blocked.

While many Internet users try to jump over the firewall, it can be too technical or costly for some. In Internet bars users are often confronted with messages of regulations before they begin to surf. Users are told they must not produce, download, copy, search for, distribute, disseminate or by other means contents which: is contrary to the basic principles of the China's National Constitution, harmful to national unification, sovereignty and territorial integrity, reveals national secrets, harms national security, honour and interests. In addition regulations also prohibit actions which may incite national hatred, ethnic discrimination or destroys national unity.

Of course few may disregard or take little notice of such on screen messages, and many people often wish only to participate in online gaming. But there is a growing resentment amongst China's youth about the all pervasive censorship. Rock fans interviewed recently by one blog called InsideGFW gave a revealing insight into what young people thought about Internet restrictions. And those that do jump the wall see a very different world outside [Bloomberg].

Many Chinese use a VPN [Virtual Private Network] to access sites such as Facebook and Twitter, but even they acknowledge the walls will not come down soon, especially after what has been seen in Egypt. "It will be hard to allow any company outside of China so much influence," says Paul Wuh, a Hong Kong based analyst at Samsung Securities Co. Even the founder of the Great Firewall of China, Fang Binxing uses a VPN to jump the wall, though he says he uses it to determine how effective China's filtering system is [LA Times]. He defended the Great Firewall of China in an interview with the Global Times, saying that it still needed improvements. In terms of Internet freedom China has a long way to go, and it won't be easily pushed into making changes any time soon.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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