Internet freedom could well be the defining issue of the 21st century, the issue on which authoritarian regimes stand or fall. Authoritarian regimes are only too well aware that the greatest threat they face today is less from an outside military force than from populations empowered by information about their own country and by the ability to communicate and organize via new cell phone technologies. As reported Monday by The New York Times, China is arming itself in this communications battle, trying to get a handle on the host of new social Internet sites that are making government control much more difficult than in the past. The fact is that the 21st century is just not a good time to be a control freak.
China’s new “Internet news coordination bureau,” is part of a tangle of agencies that have cropped up in recent years to monitor China’s exploding number of Web users. According to the Congressional Research Service, China doubled its number of Web users between 2006-2008. The number now stands at an estimated 400 million—larger than the entire population of the United States and about one-third the entire Chinese population. The new censorship bureau is under the auspices of the State Council Information Office, “which acts as a leading daily enforcer over news-related content on the Web,” as the newspaper puts it. Needless to say, this is a job of mind blowing magnitude, comparable to King Canute seeking to stem the tide. The vast sea of Internet sites, from blogs to chat rooms to bulletin boards and on and on have made total control of the flow of information virtually impossible. Chinese users in search of information are getting increasingly sophisticated in their use of circumvention tools, such as “proxy servers” and “virtual private networks.”
The Chinese government routinely blocks access to Twitter and Facebook, and targets Chinese websites for information deemed subversive. Instead the government is promoting its own local alternatives, Sina.com, QQ.com, as well as the Web site of the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily. Furthermore, the Chinese regime is also deploying an army of official Internet users, whose job is to post favorable information about China.
The State Department should now put its money where Secretary Clinton’s mouth is and streamline the process to support groups working for Internet freedom, be this in China, Iran or elsewhere. The principles of the U.S. Constitution, as in the freedom of (Internet) expression, are the strongest possible foundation for U.S. public diplomacy.