Magazine February 22, 2010, Issue

‘A Very Important Subject’

Internet freedom and a widespread restlessness

These are heady days for Internet freedom. In “nonconsensual so­cieties,” as Robert Conquest calls them, people are pushing limits; and the governments are pushing back. Our secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, gave a speech on Internet freedom toward the end of January. She said, “This is an important speech on a very important subject.” That’s an unusual thing for a speaker to say, but she was absolutely right. And she proceeded to give a ringing defense of Internet freedom.

Technology has long been double-edged: an aid to the oppressed and an aid to their oppressors. Clinton took note of this in her speech. And she had a particularly stirring sentence: “On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does.”

One government that reacted very badly to this speech was China’s — lashing out at the U.S. for cyberhegemony, information imperialism, and related sins. The ruling Chinese Communists are trying to manage something difficult: They want to allow enough latitude and progress to let China grow and play a big role in the world; at the same time, they cannot, from their point of view, allow so much latitude and progress that people take them down.

In mid-January, Google posed to them a big challenge. The Internet giant had gone into China in 2005, agreeing to play by the Communists’ rules: Google would censor its search engine, to block Chinese users from gaining information about Tibet, Falun Gong, and other “sensitive” subjects. But, this past December, Google became aware of an attack on its infrastructure from China. And the Google mailboxes of human-rights activists and their supporters were being invaded. Google said that this could not stand, and that it would no longer censor its search engine — even if it meant pulling out of China. The matter has not seen resolution as of yet.

Google’s stance marks a serious change in the attitude of Internet companies. For years now, dictatorships have taken ad­vantage of the “outsourcing of censorship,” as the phrase goes: Companies such as Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft have done their dirty work for them. Yahoo! even provided the Chinese au­thorities with information on dissidents that led to their imprisonment. The late congressman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, gave these companies a mem­orable dressing-down — more than one, actually. For example, in November 2007, he said, “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.”

In November 2009, a Chinese student had a question for a visiting Barack Obama: “Should we be able to use Twitter freely?” After some hemming and hawing, the president said yes. Twitter is partially blocked in China. And Facebook and YouTube are banned. The latter was banned in 2008 after videos of Chinese thuggery in Tibet were posted.

There is Internet restlessness in China, as there is restlessness in general. A mere three days after Google announced its new stance, a young Chinese computer whiz, Li Senhe, put up his own, quite unauthorized version of YouTube (a Google product, incidentally). It will likely not remain up for long. Li told the Christian Science Monitor, “I did this as a public service.” But he is taking care to abide by Chinese censorship rules, lest he get more trouble than he really wants.

There is restlessness in the Middle East, too, of all kinds. Bloggers dot the Arab world. Sometimes they incur the wrath of authorities, and miserable things befall them. CyberDissidents.org has details (de­tails that are not for the squeamish). In Egypt, hardly the most repressive country in the area, bloggers are being arrested in large numbers. Secretary Clinton took account of this in her speech. One of the arrested is a well-known blogger — more like an independent journalist — named Wael Abbas. He is insistent on human rights and democracy for his country. And the police have been harassing him and threatening him for years. They have accused him of being a Zionist agent, a Christian convert, a homosexual: These are very serious charges in Egypt.

#page#Until now, he has been probably too big to arrest: too well-known and admired to throw in jail. But in the middle of January, he fell under the net.

In Iran, they are e-mailing, texting, Facebooking, tweeting: that is, the dem­ocratic protesters are doing so. It reached the point, last summer, where the mullahs’ regime accused Western governments of using the new social media to execute a “soft coup.” The mullahs are almost certainly right to be concerned.

Freedom House, the Washington, D.C.–based outfit, has a survey called “Freedom on the Net.” It compares 15 countries: and finds Cuba the worst of them. Iran and China are better environments than the Castros’ island. From the start — 1959 — the regime has taken care to keep tools out of the hands of democrats and other threatening people. Raúl Rivero, the poet and journalist, is now in exile in Spain. Back in Cuba, he would sometimes be visited by foreign journalists. They would ask him, “Anything I can do for you?” He would say, “Yes: Leave your pen.”

Cellphones and laptops were illegal until 2008. And even now, very few have them, for the cost of those items is out of reach. An American tried to alleviate this situation. He is Alan P. Gross, and he is now in a Cuban prison. Gross works for a subcontractor of the U.S. Agency for International Development. He went to Cuba to distribute cellphones and laptops to civil-society groups. On December 4, he was at the airport, about to leave the country. And the regime arrested him as a spy.

Despite fearsome odds, there is blogging in Cuba, from Cuba: Daring writers get their work out to contacts abroad, who then post the writings. The best-known blogger is Yoani Sánchez, who last Novem­ber 6 was beaten to a pulp by state security. About two weeks later, she circulated answers from President Obama — answers to questions she had posed to him. He congratulated Sánchez and her fellow bloggers on their “collective efforts to empower fellow Cubans to express themselves through the use of technology.”

One who marvels at what protesters and dissidents are able to do, in many countries, is Ignat Solzhenitsyn, middle son of the late, heroic author. Would the Soviet Union have allowed any Internet access at all (if it could help it)? The Soviets banned even copying machines, to say nothing of fax machines later on. Alek­sandr Solzhenitsyn’s books got around because they were typed, one copy at a time. The writer’s allies would do this, painstakingly. Imagine how difficult or tedious it is to type even a few pages of a book, says Ignat. Now imagine typing the whole book — and doing it in secrecy, at risk of capture, imprisonment, and death. He says that the Soviet Union would have collapsed much faster with technology such as today’s.

Last summer, observing the Iranian protests, defense secretary Robert Gates had a comment or two. He said that the new media represented “a huge win for freedom around the world,” because a “monopoly of information is no longer in the hands of the government.” A dictatorship, he said, “just can’t draw the net tight enough to stop everything. If you can’t text, then you Twitter.” Maybe. But tyrannical governments have proven ingenious at thwarting and stifling their citizens.

Possibly, the nerve Google recently found will embolden other tech companies. At the Davos conference in late January, Twitter’s CEO, Evan Williams, said that his people were working on ways to stop governments from blocking Twitter technology. About such blocking, he said, “The most productive way to fight that is not by trying to engage China and other governments whose very being is against what we are about”; it is to find “technological ways” around them.

After Google’s mid-January announcement, a touching thing happened. Day after day, ordinary Chinese came to Google’s Beijing offices to leave flowers and notes: in appreciation for the company’s pro-freedom stand. One of the notes, attached to a bouquet, said, “Google: Pure Man.” That there is hunger for freedom, Internet and otherwise, have no doubt.

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