Feb 24, 2012

SOPA Furor Puts China’s Internet Practices in Perspective

The Wikipedia homepage as it looked when it blacked itself out to protest SOPA and PIPA last month. Photo by David Holmes via Flickr, used through Creative Commons.

By Jordan Humphreys
For Reporting Texas

During the heated debate over bids in Congress to pass Internet-policing legislation earlier this year, such opponents as Google co-founder Sergey Brin branded the bills as attempts at outright censorship that could shove the U.S. Internet toward an experience that looks more like China. Yet others disagree.

Nan Zheng, an assistant professor of journalism at Virginia’s James Madison University, understands why critics of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and would draw comparisons with China. Yet she says the realities in the two countries are starkly different.

“SOPA is coming from a goal of preventing piracy—it’s a regulation for the sake of business and the economy,” she said. “In China … it’s more about political control. They don’t want the Chinese people to see what the outside world is saying about China.”

After Web-based campaigns by Google and Wikipedia stirred a public backlash, Congressional sponsors pulled the Stop Online Privacy and Protect Intellectual Property bills, which were intended to reduce internet piracy by blocking access to sites that posted copyright-infringing content, as well as sites that linked to that content. SOPA author Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas’ 21st District said he would hold off on the legislation until he found more public support.

In China, by most accounts, the political sensitivities tend to be on the government side. Chinese Internet users have been arrested or detained for posting what is considered politically sensitive content online. Typically, it doesn’t get that far, though, since the Chinese government sharply limits what citizens see and discuss online.

“China has lots of instruments of control over the Internet,” said Ed Wong, China bureau chief for The New York Times, in an email interview. “It uses technical means—the Great Firewall—to block certain websites, including some popular Western social networking sites… The government fears they could lead to social instability and help foment protests and unrest.”

Indeed, Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, and Chinese equivalents are heavily censored. “If you post on the Chinese Facebook, it will go through the censorship process, and if it’s something that isn’t allowed, [the government] will take it down,” said a student at the University of Texas at Austin who asked not to be identified by name because she wants to return to China for professional work.

Chinese netizens frequently use proxies or virtual private networks to jump the firewall and get access to U.S. and other global sites by setting the computer’s address in another country, said Paul Mooney, a freelance journalist who has been in Beijing since 1994.

Yet, as Mooney pointed out in an email interview, “Even if one makes it over the firewall, security people … can easily track down anyone who has posted things on the Internet that the government does not like.” Officials also zero in on the use of key words to help them ferret out offending posts.

Mooney said the government also has a habit of “stealing the identities of well-known critics and then using their email address or social media account to deliver malware to computers of friends.” He added, “Many people are now reluctant to download files online or to accept information via Skype and other social media.”

Beijing’s best bet for blocking unwanted content, however, may be getting Chinese citizens to censor themselves. “Producers of web content, especially those at large companies, often take into consideration the kind of content that government deems unacceptable,” Wong said. “Some are willing to be adventurous and post content that defies this. But more often than not, people engage in self-censorship…”

The UT student said that as a reporter in China, she discovered issues she couldn’t cover, either because the government or her editor felt doing so was dangerous. “Before you report on something, you have to discuss it with your editor,” she said, “and if it’s sensitive you may be able to get close to the edge… of what you can report. But you also might not be able to cover it, so the editor becomes the gatekeeper.”

Self-censorship can keep life-saving information out of the reach of Chinese people, Mooney said. Last year, the government blocked coverage by Economic Observer, a prominent Beijing-based weekly, about faulty train equipment. When a reporter attempted to get the information out on her blog site, Mooney said, her editor forced her to take it down. In January, when there was a major train accident resulting from a similar equipment malfunction, the government attempted to cover up the details.

“Many problems could be avoided if the government did not block the media and the Internet so successfully,” Mooney said.

Yet despite the tight control on information countering the ruling party, more stories and complaints about local-level issues may be finding their way into the mediasphere. “Maybe the government is learning as well to say, ‘If we’re tolerant on small issues and local government, if we let people vent, there won’t be big riots,’” said Zheng, the journalism professor. “But government control is still there for the big issues, and it seems like it will persist.”

In the U.S., some SOPA critics may have overstated the extent of government intent or capacity to engage in online censorship, and the proposed legislation was relatively tame in contrast with Chinese policing tactics. Yet David Donaldson, a First Amendment and intellectual property lawyer in Austin, said concerns were understandable “in a country that historically values Internet freedoms.”

Should material be posted on a website in violation of the proposed SOPA provisions, he said, “the ISP and search engines could be forced to restrict access the entire domain … and this sets a dangerous precedent.”