Today marked a momentous occasion as the United States Senate and House of Representatives agreed to put two Internet anti-piracy bills on hold in the wake of public outcry over the reach of the bills. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) sparked mass online protests on Wednesday, with some websites such as Wikipedia going dark for a 24-hour period and redirecting its users to contact their Congressman. At the heart of the controversy was a belief that the bills would impose a huge burden on websites to police user activity on their sites and remove any content suspected of violating intellectual property rights. Failure to comply would give the Justice Department broad powers to block access to domain names in their entireties and prevent search engines from listing them in their results. The hold on the bills is the result of many Senators and Congressmen responding to the concerns of its constituents, expressed in such volume that many congressional websites crashed on Wednesday afternoon.
These bills and the government’s attempts to police the content of websites has led many to draw parallels with the Chinese government’s “Great Firewall” and its constant vigilance over the activities of Chinese dissidents on the internet. Many bloggers and activists in China found some humor and irony in the events as they unfolded:
Watching from China, where Web censorship is practically a national hallmark, some can’t help but smirk and crack jokes about the controversy raging over Internet freedom in the U.S.
“Now the U.S. government is copying us and starting to build their own firewall,” wrote one micro-blogger, relating China’s chief censorship tool to the U.S. plan to block sites that trade in pirated material.
The Relevant Organs, an anonymous Twitter account (presumably) pretending to be the voice of the Chinese communist leadership, quipped: “Don’t understand the hoopla over Wikipedia blackout in the U.S. today. We blacked it out here years ago. Where are OUR hugs?”
While it might be tempting to compare SOPA/PIPA to the Chinese firewall, the reality is they are vastly different devices. The United States government, in seeking these bills, is seeking to combat Internet piracy (often conducted from China), a legitimate cause pursued in a misguided manner. The Chinese government, on the other hand, is seeking to censor its own people and remove any hints of opposition, dissidence, or open debate of politics or policy.
Yet it is interesting to compare the American’s public response to the bill, and their success in opposing it, with the reality Chinese citizens face in being unable to protest the actions or policy of their Government without facing severe consequences.
“Only an American company could protest the way Wikipedia or Google has to the government,” said Zhao Jing, a closely followed blogger in Beijing who uses the pen name Michael Anti. “A Chinese company would never get away with that.”
Indeed, China’s Internet sector has no choice but to submit to government pressure -– be it by censoring its own users or implementing whatever happens to be the state initiative of the moment (the latest may require the real-ID registration of 250 million micro-blog accounts despite threats to privacy and the cost burden on Web firms).
Another distinction Chinese activists note is that the proposed legislation in Washington is being debated openly in public and ultimately has to adhere to U.S. law. Chinese censorship, on the other hand, operates in an opaque space where no one really knows what’s banned, what isn’t and who is calling the shots.
While U.S. companies such as Wikipedia and Reddit can comfortably participate in an “Internet Blackout” and American citizens are able, and in fact encouraged, to contact their Congressmen in opposition to a bill, Chinese citizens have no recourse to petition their government to change course. In fact, to do so is to put oneself in the scope of the Chinese government’s police.
One of the companies that led the charge against SOPA/PIPA was of course Google, the largest search engine in the United States and a company that would have found itself having to censor its search results if the bill was passed. Google has a history of opposing Internet censorship wherever it may be, starting with China itself. In 2010 it declared it would cease to cooperate with the Chinese government’s attempt to censor the Internet, a move that caused much controversy around the world.
Sadly, not all U.S. tech companies have demonstrated the same courage as Google, and worse still some have played crucial roles in helping China continue to develop its system of Internet censorship and violations of human rights. Through this all, Cisco Systems has continued to act as a partner and collaborator with Chinese government’s as it pursues the “Golden Shield Project”
Internet companies and citizens alike should be encouraged by their success in lobbying their representatives to change course and protect the Internet from censorship. Likewise, they should continue to oppose censorship wherever it may be and let Cisco Systems know that their continued and knowing support of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to violate the human rights of peaceful political dissidents like Du Daobin, Zhou Yuanzhi, and Liu Xianbin will no longer be tolerated. Contact your elected representatives — let them know how you feel. Finally, if you haven’t already done so, sign the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s petition– Tell Cisco: Stop helping China abuse human rights!.