Net Freedom and Nationalism – Part I

February 17, 2011

I started writing this as a single post, but this is looking like a big topic, so I’m going to split this up into a few parts. This one is about the notion, popular in the US and elsewhere and mentioned in Clinton’s speech this week, that Net controls will obviously lead to political and social instability.

The US made a lot of news this week about Internet controls, with a major speech by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and a report issued by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (PDF file). The context was Egypt, but the sub-text was China (the Senate report was China-specific). Reading all this stuff over the past couple of days, I’m left with one simple question: does the US mean what it says, or is this just clever realpolitik in action?

Let’s start with Secretary Clinton, who set up her discussion of Net restrictions as a global conversation. The Net is, after all, a world wide web, so talking about what we all collectively agree upon as its guiding principles makes sense:

To maintain an internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that will guide us, what rules exist and should not exist and why, what behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged and how.

Lovely. She then went on to explain what some of those guiding principles should be, from the US perspective. But what will happen if some nations decide not to follow those principles? Very bad things, apparently:

These  actions [censorship and access restrictions] reflect a landscape that is complex and combustible, and sure to become more so in the coming years as billions of more people connect to the internet.

What does “combustible” mean? In my opinion, Clinton is saying that if you, foreign government, do not follow the principles I have laid out, your people will depose your ass violently like they just did in Egypt.

I’m happy to go along with Clinton’s list of principles, which I strongly support (perhaps even more than she does, but I’ll get to that in a later post). However, that “combustible” comment is not only vaguely threatening, but I think incorrect.

Is she really saying that Net controls toppled the Egyptian government? No, she’s not saying that, nor is anyone espousing that point of view. The people there had a long list of grievances that had nothing to do with the Net.

And yet. Clinton’s speech contains a list of nations that engage in Net controls, including Vietnam, China and Cuba (interesting choices). In the very next sentence, there is a reference to those activities and the word “combustible.” If I’m misinterpreting this, please explain her diction to me.

Assuming for the moment that I’m right, can we test this premise at all? Well, we can certainly look at modern China, which has, shall we say, robust security measures when it comes to Net content. Those who believe in Clinton’s pronouncement on this would expect, over time, that such content controls would necessarily lead to instability.

But that’s arguably not happening in China, and the social tension that we do experience here is all about income inequality, corruption, pollution, inflation and so on, and very little to do with Net controls which, despite their presence, actually still allow for fierce debate on those very topics.

In other words, I don’t see folks marching in the streets with pitchforks and torches because they can’t get on Facebook. The average citizen has more important fish to fry.

Clinton’s comment in this sense is a bit strange, because earlier in her speech she took great pains to point out that events in Egypt were not caused by the Net, the change was brought about by the people. Indeed, she said, the Net is a neutral force that can be used for good or evil.1

I agree. The Net is a neutral force, and it is also not a significant source of social discontent, at least not from where I sit here in Beijing. People who assume that any curtailment of free expression will eventually lead to widespread push back are engaging in wishful thinking, assuming that what they care about from their safe perch in D.C. (or where ever) must be important to everyone in the world.

Sorry, but the price of soybeans is simply a bigger deal right now.

What’s one of the messages I see lurking about in Clinton’s speech? That the US is still engaged in some kind of an ideological struggle (against Communism?). This is not simply a matter of how the Net should be governed, but an epic battle between right and wrong, with the losers going the way of the dodo.

If Clinton simply wished to say that Net freedom is important and that the US supports that policy, there would have been no need to make lists of the bad acts of Communist nations, use inflammatory language like “combustible” (didn’t mean that to be funny), and discuss the “political costs” and “social stability” problems that Net controls engender.

If you add all this up, it’s more than just “We’re right, and you’re wrong,” but “If you don’t agree with us, you’re toast.”

Still, we could chalk all this up to a passionate and sincere American belief in free expression, one that is so strong that it trumps other policy concerns. To do that, of course, we would have to conveniently ignore America’s own Net controls (Part II will pick up on this issue).
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  1. Her words, not mine. In my opinion, the concepts of good and evil should never be used in a policy discussion. It’s intellectually lazy and can be dangerous.[]

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12 thoughts on “Net Freedom and Nationalism – Part I

    1. Stan Post author

      Can’t back any of this up, but with a more open Net, I would expect to see:

      1. Same discontent.
      2. Marginally more discussion about those issues.
      3. Greater ability to organize dissent.

      Of the three, #3 is the most significant one.

  1. pug_ster

    “Net Freedom” is nothing but smoke and mirrors. It is more about control of information in the internet. Why do you think Facebook and twitter is censored in China? If the Chinese government demands these companies to hand over some information from someone, Facebook and twitter would most likely not comply whereas they would comply if the US government asks for it. So the Chinese government was very smart to block them and encourage domestic companies who would comply.

    Just today I saw an article about FBI announcing more “Net-wiretapping” push.

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-20032518-281.html?tag=topStories1

    Sorry to say, that while Clinton is pushing other countries to encourage “net Freedom,” they are taking away our “net freedom.”

    1. AT

      First of all, we should be careful to distinguish between net freedom and net privacy. Regarding net privacy, I think most people would agree that the entire concept is and has pretty much always been a myth. If someone with the right tech-savviness, including the government, wants to know what you’re doing online, they can find out. In the US, there are constitutional limitations to this type of info-gathering. Law enforcement has always been notorious for doing everything it can to bypass those limitations, but courts are generally pretty good in enforcing the limitations, at least in the most absurd situations. In China, good luck using the Constitution to challenge law enforcement activity in court, especially given that courts aren’t legally empowered to interpret the Constitution.

      Regarding net freedom, I really hope that you’re not going to try to argue that the USG is being hypocritical because there is absolutely no reasonable comparison to make between the online activity permitted by the USG and the online activity permitted in China. People have tried to use the State Department’s response to the Wikileaks fiasco to belie the US’ policy, but that argument falls short on so many different levels. Also, this really isn’t about “net” freedom per se. Net freedom is really just a proxy for freedom of speech and information. Again, there is no reasonable comparison to make between the two gov’t's policies in these areas.

      Finally, you’re right that the rising cost of soybeans and other economic indicators are more important causes of unrest, without question. And that makes this WSJ report pretty interesting:

      “In some respects, the overhauls announced by the NBS Wednesday are a step forward. For 35 of China’s biggest cities, the stats bureau has shifted away from surveys conducted by sometimes unreliable local officials and toward a complete record of all transactions, reported over the Internet.

      But instead of using this better data to publish a national average, the NBS has stopped publication, removing the most straightforward and widely followed measure of developments in China’s housing markets.

      Not publishing the data might remove a rallying point for popular discontent over unaffordable housing. But it won’t do anything to solve the underlying problem. And it just got harder for investors tracking real estate as a factor driving domestic growth, and international demand for iron ore and copper.”

      http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704657704576150243966519406.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

  2. slim

    Hidden Harmonies, ant-CNN, Fool’s Mountain and much of Global Times online show how Chinese entities are using the Internet to spread disinformation and rally the nationalist masses.

    I’d say China also blocks or bans or handicaps foreign websites as part of industrial policy to favor local firms. Would Baidu have ever become more than a way to steal pirated music and vids in an open market?

    1. pug_ster

      Heck even most of it Chinese citizens knows that its government censors what they call ‘dangerous information’ yet you don’t see people protesting about it. Have you ever thought they want it censored? Maybe the problem is not about censorship, rather your dilemma is why don’t they think like we do. The problem is that they don’t think like we do.

  3. deldallas

    I see an issue in global conflict (or global ‘combustion’) prevention. In my view, in the US/Can./EU/Japan/ROK/others the broadly accepted idea is: ‘we will pursue the building of our nations in a manner that, net-net, has a positive or at least neutral affect on humanity as a whole’. And alternatively, in some other nations, the broadly accepted idea is: ‘it’s red team vs. blue team in a no-holds-barred survival match. When it comes to the international arena, there is no wrong or right, there are only winners and losers and don’t believe the blue team isn’t as down-and-dirty as we are.’

    I think one of the most critical components of moving to a world that sees international dealings as a matter of ‘right or wrong’ instead of ‘winners and losers’ is about international dialogue amongst kids/students/parents that fosters the idea of a single global community. The internet, to the extent that it allows for globally-connected cooperation, discussion and debate, provides an unprecedented opportunity international social integration. However, if certain countries create an internet environment where their citizens are ‘roped-off’ from the ‘other kids in the pool’, it is fostering indifference, ignorance and potentially antisocial attitudes towards the ‘other kids in the pool’.

    Rest-assured, the globally-leading US technology/media companies are among those who receive the largest benefit from a completely free and open internet, but a completely free and open internet is the only medium on which we can create a single community where the door to any of your over 6 billion neighbors is only ever couple clicks away. And I think it’s pretty hard to understate how important creating a sense of a global community is to global security.

  4. Koshi

    Why is it that US citizens promoting themselves as China bloggers are always the most concerned? Surely there’s vested self interest here in bashing the Chinese restrictive laws? Stan I put it to you that your own opinion must be biased. Care to comment?

    1. Stan Post author

      Well, as with everyone, I certainly have my biases. For example, I’m a free trader.

      Am I blogging out of self interest? That would be tough to pin on me I think. I do not actively solicit clients on my blog, I do not advertise for my firm, and I definitely do not choose topics based solely on my legal practice. If I did that, I would never write about econ, trade, criminal cases, etc. So explain what’s in it for me.

        1. Stan Post author

          Everything is motivated by self interest, one way or another. Perhaps I should have said that I am not being motivated by financial concerns, direct or otherwise!