China, the Internet's Broken Link


Danny Weitzner, W3C, at
WWW2006
Danny Weitzner, W3C, at WWW2006
(click to enlarge)

Danny Weitzner from the W3C started out today's plenary session with a discussion of the Internet and Society called "China: A Broken Link on the Web.

Is it the case that if everyone's a publisher, then too is every government a filter and interceptor? He starts off noting the story of Yahoo! "helping jail a Chinese writer" and made some interesting points:

  • Yahoo! has no basis for ignoring Chinese law while obeying the laws of other countries.
  • That leaves the choice of simply not doing business in China.
  • There's an argument that being in China and obeying the law is better for the cause of freedom in China than not being there at all.

He brings up Google's "do no evil" motto and says it's become an albatross around Google's neck. The problem is that you get caught up in the semantics of evil.

He points out the Reporters Without Borders principles:

  1. Email: No US company should host email services in a 'repressive country' -- demands for access would have to go government to government.
  2. Search: No search engine should filter 'protected' words such as democracy
  3. Content hosting (blogs, etc.): No US company should be allowed to host content in a repressive country.
  4. Internet filtering: No US company should be allowed to sell filtering technology to a repressive country.
  5. Surveillance: US companies must obtain permission from the USG to export Internet surveillance technology.
  6. Training: No training in filter or surveillance to repressive states without US Department of Commerce permission.

The Internet has changed the thinking about the way media is regulated:

  • The Internet is characterized by abundance rather than scarcity.
  • User control can replace censorship.
  • Carrier liability limits have changed because in decentralized networks, responsibility shifts to the end-points.

Ira Magaziner, part of the Clinton administration, worked hard in the 90's to convince world government to keep their hands off the Internet. This bring us back to China. The "hands off" strategy has some weak points:

  • Abundance has changed from open web to no limits except for political speakers.
  • User control has shifted to content choice by the government.
  • Carrier liability is absolute. China has turned ISPs into agents of the state.

There are three possible outcomes:

  • We accept China's sovereignty and let things continue. This is the status quo.
  • We see real support for a human right of free expression by governments around the world. This principle has been articulated and is even given lip service by countries, including China.
  • We shine a light on China's actions leading to increased global transparency.

The last point is a third way, perhaps. Google has laid out a set of transparency principles.

  1. transparency to users: including an indication of what's blocked
  2. transparency to the world: letting everyone else know what Google blocks and, where possible, why
  3. protection of customer information
  4. insistence on rule of law and due process
  5. Shareholders in companies (especially minority shareholders) should insist on compliance with openness principles.

These principles have application in every country. For example, Google filters copyrighted material from results in some countries and certain kinds of hate sites in others. Google is in a tight place in China, however since China State Secrets Law prohibits revealing the specific sites that they block in China. China doesn't actually say which sites to block, they have a list of criterion and companies have to apply those themselves.

There are groups, however that compare results in China with results elsewhere and then publish lists of sites that have been blocked.

The Chinese Government's policy on reform has two tracks, an aggressive program of economic reform and a slower program of political reform. Some believe that domestic demands will eventually result in political reform. While many don't support this optimistic view, many reformers closest to the situation (Chinese dissident groups) believe it.