Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, co-founded Global Voices Online, a citizen-media community that aggregates and translates the work of bloggers around the world. She is writing a book about the future of freedom in the Internet age.
Your interest in Internet censorship grew partly from your experience as a journalist for CNN in Beijing during the 1990s. In what ways did the Chinese government censor online activity then?
Very soon after the Internet appeared in China, it was censored. When you tried to visit certain Web sites, you would find that they were blocked. I had to learn to use a technology known as proxy servers to get around the censorship. It became clear very quickly that our e-mail was being intercepted. It was really hard to communicate confidentially online. If you wanted to have a confidential conversation, you had to do it in person, in the middle of a field. Working in China in the mid- to late-’90s made you acutely aware of both the power and the limitations of the Internet.
How has the Chinese government’s approach to censorship changed?
Chinese authoritarianism today is a very different kind of authoritarianism than regimes of 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago. The regime has learned to be more flexible, to use the Internet to make people feel that the government is being more responsive to their problems. It enables a greater space for public discourse in China than there used to be. But still, people have no guarantees of their rights. If the government wants to throw you in jail, they can still throw you in jail. The government can still censor a lot of things. While people are able to expose some kinds of corruption and have a lot of discussions and debates, they’re not able to use the Internet to organize an opposition party or expose wrongdoing by the central government. It’s not that the government has controlled everything all the time — you can’t do that on the Internet — but they’ve figured out how to prioritize and focus their controls so that the kinds of speech and the kinds of online activities that would be of greatest threat to the regime are either curtailed or prevented.
How prevalent is Internet censorship worldwide?
It’s spreading. The Open Net Initiative has found that there are at least 40 countries that are censoring the Internet on a national scale. China has pioneered various techniques in blocking and filtering Web sites, but it also conducts several other layers of censorship. Most Chinese Web sites are hosted on servers inside China, so you don’t need to block the material if you can make the people who run the Web site take it down. Around the world, there are some countries that just do blocking. Throughout the Arab world, increasingly the sites that are operated in a country are subject to regulations that require deletion of [prohibited] content.
In March, Google decided to shut down its site in China and direct Chinese users to its Hong Kong site. For those users, what was lost or gained?
When Google went into China in 2006, the company said it was better to go there with a censored search engine than not to be there at all. Arguably, in the short term, Chinese users are getting less information now that Google has left China than when Google was in China and doing this compromise. The difference is that the censorship is not being conducted by Google. Part of the question that Google was grappling with was to what extent it was, by participating in the censorship, making it more comfortable and acceptable to the Chinese public that they were being censored. One of the problems in China is that a lot of people don’t realize how much the Internet is censored.
Whether leaving China will have the effect that Google is hoping for is not clear. But Google’s move out of China wasn’t just about China. It was about how governments regulate the Internet anywhere. Google is fighting with a number of governments about the extent to which it ought to be held liable for what its users are doing. Even in the U.S., Google is making this argument that it should not be held liable for being an arbiter of what’s good and bad, that it’s a slippery slope into censorship. By being in China and agreeing to do this censorship, it made it much harder for Google to make its argument everywhere else. It was easier for governments to say to Google, “You do this in China. Why are you not doing it here?”
– Interview conducted and condensed by Brett Tomlinson