In August 2008, Digital Democracy conducted research with Burmese community groups operating in southern China, near the Burma/Myanmar border. While researching the use of communications technologies, one young Kachin man explained the difference between the Internet in China and Burma, stating, “To me the web in China is totally free.” Censored though the Chinese web may be, his statement helps us keep in mind the complex realities - and differing degrees - of modern communication tools.
This fall, Digital Democracy submitted testimony to US Congress at the US-Helsinki Commission briefing, “Twitter against Tyrants: New Media in Authoritarian Regimes.” In our statement, we stressed that repressive regimes thrive on the distortion of truth, and the need for better understanding of how communications technology is used on the ground by grassroots organizations. We emphasized the critical need for dialogue on security, new media literacy and the meaning of freedom of speech.
Just 24 hours after Google announced a shift in their China policy, a conversation of this nature is well under way. With their statement A new approach to China_, the Fortune 500 company has openly described the difficulties of operating within the country, conforming to China’s censorship policy and facing cyberattacks on their users.
“We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech.”
We read Google’s statement as not just an update on attacks on its server, but an attempt to develop a more responsible approach to complex issues of freedom of information. From a company whose motto “don’t be evil” has often been met with cynicism (and serious privacy concerns) we applaud this beginning of a debate on freedom of information.
One concern we hope to closely monitor is what impact this decision will have on the end users in China. Our Congressional statement made four recommendations based on the idea that in the current information age, knowledge is power. However, as our Burmese colleague in southern China reminded us, even restricted information can play a valuable role. We hope to hear from friends and colleagues what effect Google’s decision has among Internet users in China. Amidst the uncertainty, we’re compelled to revisit our recommendations to the Helsinki Commission.
Security continues to be a priority and access to information can continue to happen anywhere in the world when accessed with knowledge of the right tools.
Local partners continue to have the best information about ICT realities on the ground in any particular country, and it is critical to connect and dialogue with them on their needs.
Tools should be developed and adapted to address changing circumstances.
Education is critical. Reducing barriers to freedom of information requires an evolving new media literacy.
Ultimately, we view Google’s move as a teachable moment in a global conversation about our individual, collective and corporate responsibility in supporting freedom of information. From Yahoo!s previous missteps handing information to Chinese authorities, to Facebook’s founder recently declaring that the age of privacy is over, Google’s step is an important one, and one we hope will raise the conversation of secure methods every internet user should employ. We are pleased to see that Gmail now defaults to encrypted access, an important protection. We hope other companies will consider similarly appropriate steps, and hope that more will contribute their thoughts to an honest and open dialogue about responsible ICT practice in the year 2010 and beyond. As we wrote,
“A lack of legal infrastructure prevents US corporations from protecting new media users in repressive regimes. Site owners are culpable for content in foreign states, even when data is physically housed on US soil in data farms, and legal frameworks have not yet been fully established for US companies to protect end-users.”
How momentous will Google’s decision be, ultimately? Will this moment be a turning point in the US, China, and our relations between both countries? In China, the following meme is spreading quickly:
90后：今天我翻墙，看到一个国外网站叫Google的，妈的全是抄袭百度的。00后：翻墙是什么？ 10后：网站是什么？ 20后：国外是什么？
People born in 90s: Today I stepped out of the Great Firewall and saw a foreign website named Google. Shit, it is all but a copy of Baidu. Born in 00s: What do you mean by stepping out of Great Firewall? Born in 10s: What do you mean by website? Born in 20s: What is ‘foreign’?