Last week, the Economist featured a “special report” on internet freedom in China, bringing to mind the unprecedented public reaction to the introductions of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) debates in late 2011 and early 2012. Though the bills were notably over-hyped by critics, the reaction reflects the different views between the American and Chinese governments on internet regulation.
When SOPA was first introduced on October 26, 2011 by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), major media companies and organizations, including the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), clamored to support the legislation. The bill, if enacted into law, would have given the government power to force Internet Service Providers (ISPs), search engines, and payment processors to block access to foreign websites “dedicated to copyright infringement.”
The MPAA cited a study analyzing the consequences of content theft or piracy, which can be as large as $58 billion in output and over 370,000 jobs. Though the accuracy of these numbers has been criticized, some make a philosophical objection as well. According to Tim O’Reilly, the founder of O’Reilly Media and a consistent supporter of open-source movements,
“The losses due to piracy are far outweighed by the benefits of the free flow of information, which makes the world richer, and develops new markets for legitimate content.”
O’Reilly makes a good point. Though most Americans can agree piracy at some level is unfair to artists and content-producers, “regulating the Internet” can begin a slippery slope toward the erosion of free speech.
Once petitions were circulated, millions of Tweets were sent, and Wikipedia engaged a “black-out” to oppose the new laws, the government quickly stepped back and gave in to the public’s demands.
China, on the other hand, has shown no qualms about regulating which websites its citizens can access. The Economist concludes,
“[The Chinese government] has shown great skill in bending the technology to its own purposes, enabling it to exercise better control of its own society and setting an example for other repressive regimes.”
In fact, many American media companies now consult Chinese censors or allow them on movie sets to approve scripts before the movie’s release in order to guarantee approval in Chinese theaters.
China immediately blocked sites such as Facebook and Twitter when they were released, wary of the danger information-sharing could pose to the government-controlled narrative. However, Chinese “micro-bloggers,” taking advantage of a service called Weibo, have made great gains in persuading the government to allow domestic Internet companies some freedom.
Though critical messages about government officials are quickly deleted, the micro-blogs have been able to achieve influence in crucial moments. When a high-speed train crash killed 40 people, word spread so quickly via Weibo that the authoritarian government had no choice but to take action and replace the railway officials responsible.
Micro-bloggers realize, however, that to avoid being blocked altogether, they must consent to some censorship measures. It’s a constant struggle of negotiation and deal-making. Says one web-editor of the micro-blogging platform Tencent (speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions),
“If we did not have any free speech then this company would not have any influence, so the company must act proactively to safeguard our space. So that’s why they must go through this process of bargaining with the government departments.”
It is heartening that both American and Chinese citizens have recognized the importance of free speech, even while their governments have not. The future shows great promise for improving Internet freedom.