Censorship has had a long and colorful past in almost all civilized nations. It is not a new topic, and most people have had information, images, or sounds censored from them whether they have known it or not. Since the internet became available for public use in the early 90’s and was no longer limited to private use by scientists, universities, and professors, it also became a target of monitoring, filtering, and censors. Because the internet allows people to access information worldwide, and does not have solid border system, it is a very permeable structure. Due to this “loose” construction, the internet has become a safe haven for websites that are home to both useful and questionable material. There is a fundamental difference between the way internet censorship is executed throughout different countries, as laws, governments, and political ideologies differ vastly from one place to the next. It is because of this differentiation between borderlines and the permeable structure that the internet is built upon that makes internet censorship such a broad topic that covers many spheres throughout different cultures.
Discussion of the Controversy: Issues and Commonplaces
Because there is such a vast amount of people that use the internet on a global scale, there are many underlying issues that seem to intertwine between the pro-censorship and anti-censorship groups and advocates. Some of the main issues that come up are: 1) Censorship in Schools: Do government funded schools have the right to censor information, or does it impose upon the First Amendment?
2) United States freedoms vs. Chinese freedoms: Even though censorship is looked down upon in the United States and we value freedom of speech, do the same laws apply in China?
3) Economics: Is internet censorship funding companies that advocate freedom but sell censorship programs?
4) Freedom of Information: Could releasing classified or previously censored information perhaps lead to a threat in national security?
The first issue of whether federally funded schools have the right to censor information or if the task should be left to the children’s parents is a prevalent issue because the question of age comes into play. This question has various answers, but according to the Children’s Internet Protection Act, “both public libraries and public schools -as a condition for receiving certain federal funs- adopt filters on all of their computers to protect children from online content that was deemed potentially harmful” (Jaeger & Yan, 2009, p. 6). Two problems that can be addressed in this statement are at what age to children stop being children, and who deemed the information to be potentially harmful? What one person may feel is inappropriate or harmful, another may not. This is all dependent on peoples values on what is right and wrong, and that is why this issue is such a prevalent one throughout the controversy of internet censorship. As information is censored in public schools, some feel that the First Amendment right to free speech is encroached upon. Judith F. Krug whom is the director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association stated “the importance of the First Amendment is that it provides us with the ability to govern ourselves, because it guarantees that you have the right to access information. The filters undercut that ability” (as cited in Schwartz, 2002). According to Hall and Carter (2006) the Supreme Court “upheld Congress’s authority under the Spending Clause of the US Constitution to place whatever requirements on federal spending it saw fit to impose” and “it saw filters as a practical means for the state to achieve its legitimate interest in protecting children from pornography” (p. 241). This implies that the first issue lies mainly between advocated for free speech as well as United States citizens and the United States government. The American government feels that it has the right to either allow or deny federal funding to schools based on the condition of whether or not those schools have filtering and censoring programs in place. On the other hand, advocates for free speech and students who attend public schools may feel that this does not give them freedoms that should be granted to them for being American citizens.
The second issue at hand is one that is fundamentally routed in cultural differences. Americans are used to freedoms that other countries and cultures are not. This “right to freedom and information” is essential when evaluating the standpoint of writers who are based in the United States who are perhaps used to these rights and often take them for granted. They often carry with them the assumption that because in America we have freedoms, that other countries should share those freedoms with us. In America, we have the Freedom of Information Act that was passed in 1966 that is aimed to “provide any person with access to Federal agency records and information” (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2011). Countries such as China who work under a communist government ideology do not have freedom of information, as the government decides what is and is not accessible to its citizens. “For as long as there’s been an Internet, China has sought to monitor and control how its citizens use it” (James, 2009). Because the internet is basically an unlimited canvas for information to be posted upon, China tries its hardest to prevent its citizens to see information that may harm its governments reputation. In the Fishbowl discussion on April 29th, it was brought up that internet censorship in China is not beneficial because it stops social movements that try to rise against the government, but at the same time censorship aims at helping protect the citizens. Although it is often assumed that personal and individual freedoms are wanted by everyone, “Ironically, it was U.S. technology firms that created much of the technology supporting the Great Firewall” (James, 2009). Along with American companies creating software to help China censor information from its citizens, “a 2007 study conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that 80% of those surveyed supported government control of the internet” (Farrar, 2010, p. 3). It can be stated quite confidently that this survey source was not practicing balanced partiality, and possibly could have done selective choosing of its participants in order to get a high approval rating in its ending statistics. It is also not clearly stated how many people were surveyed. Because of the historical differences between China and the United States, censorship laws and the foundation of what is okay to censor and what is not is skewed between the two countries, and from there this issue arises.
The third issue that is prevalent in the debate on internet censorship is that of economics. Software companies in the United States create both censorship software as well as circumvention programs, and computer makers in the United States are under constant pressure from the Chinese government to pre-instal censoring programs on their computers before they can be sold in China. Patrick Lin who created a circumvention program named “Puff” has over 60,000 daily user and over 500,000 total downloads. About 60% of his daily users are based in China and the other 40% are based in Iran (Farrar, 2010, p. 2). Based on this information, it is clear that people are interested in circumvention programs in China, but many may not be technologically inclined enough to find out where to get these programs. I place high value on freedom of information, and as an American citizen I also value the right to free speech given to us by the First Amendment. But do companies value this as well or only financial gain? On the other end of the spectrum are companies such as WebSense who are based in America and provide china-specific censorship software that is sold mainly to the Chinese government (Calingaert, 2010, p. 70). It can be assumed that this American based company values capitalism and the freedom to create and distribute software, but it makes most of its profits off of other people’s restricted freedoms. This is a type of paradox that is at the root of this issue.
There is also pressure placed upon not software creators, but computer manufacturers such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard. “American computer makers say the Chinese government has not backed down from a requirement that Internet censorship software be pre-installed on all computers sold in China…many people say the software, called Green Dam-Youth Escort, will be used to block Web sites with politically unacceptable content, even though officials insist that the software will be used primarily to censor pornography” (Wong & Vance, 2009). This puts computer makers in a bind, who have, according to the article, insisted upon not placing this Chinese made program on its computers. Ultimately, they are faced with the choice of either putting the software on their computers, or losing a huge chunk of revenue from the Chinese market. This fortifies this issue rooted in economics because companies will not trade the possibility of an advancement of freedom for the people in China for capital gains.
The fourth issue is that which pertains to national security. With the release of sites such as Wikileaks, many people argue that when previously withheld or censored information such as war documents or military reports are made public it is a threat to national security. A report released by the Pentagon stated that “the information could be used by foreign intelligence, insurgents or terrorists for ‘planning attacks'” and “the lack of editorial oversight over what could be posted could lead to it being used to spread lies and propaganda” (Leonard, 2010). On the other side of this issue is the idea that in the United States, where freedom and the right to information is often a staple in inspirational speeches and political rallies, there should be an open flow of information and that the threat of national security being breached should not enforce the intentional withholding of information. “This basic impulse to promote Internet freedom abroad is contradicted by the wishes of American policy makers who don’t want to see a free Internet [if] it undermines American power. It basically makes America look very hypocritical” (Gjelten, 2010). As aforementioned, there is often a cry coming from American citizens and officials for freedom in other countries, but when the United States undergoes its own form of censorship transgression, there comes a reprimanding statement from either the Pentagon or White House that states national security may be threatened. This is such a strong issue when it comes to Internet censorship because it brings about the question; Why do we promote freedom from Internet censorship in countries such as China, but when there is an information leak online within America, it brings about censorship advocation?
The first commonplace on the topic of internet censorship was discussed in the Fishbowl discussions on both April 29th and May 6th. It was agreed upon by all three groups that in the case of America and its educational system, some censorship is necessary when it comes to protecting children in the public schools and libraries. Even though there were many opinions and beliefs and values tied to the topic of censorship in education, it was mutually agreed upon that people under the age of 18 are still considered minors, and educational systems could face legal troubles if they do not censor certain information, images, and content.
The second commonplace is that internet censorship limits personal freedoms. “Internet restrictions fundamentally limit freedom of expression online…the Universal Declaration on Human Rights tells us that all people have the right ‘to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (Callanan, Dries-Ziekenheiner, Escudero-Pascual, Guerra, 2011, p. 13). It must also be assumed that when countries such as China censor information and websites, they are aware that they are limiting their citizen’s personal freedoms. Even in school systems, when information is blocked, it restricts information that should be available to those who are attempting to access it, even when it is done for federal funding or because of legal issues. “The filtering programs tend to block references to sex and sex-related terms, like “safe sex,” “condoms,” “abortion,” “jock itch,” “gay” and “lesbian.” (Schwartz, 2002). Individuals who are perhaps facing teenage pregnancy could be turning to the school computers to research information that they are too afraid to look for at their own homes in fear of their parents finding out, and are denied their freedom to do so when facing censored information and filters at school.
The third and final commonplace is that the Internet is an essential tool for protestors and freedom of speech advocates in foreign countries to organize and try to rally against their governments. In the second fishbowl discussion on April 29th, it was agreed upon that the Internet is an important tool for students, protestors and activists to strengthen democratic ideals and to schedule meetings that would normally be denied. The Internet is a tool for citizens of oppressive regimes to overthrow their government by organizing protests and using numbers to regain political control, as was the case in Egypt in early February of 2011 when “The government’s efforts to control the message by cutting off the Internet and phones, and by arresting scores of journalists and activists, similarly backfired” (Fadel, 2011).
Assessment of the Controversy:
Now that the issues and commonplaces have been discussed, the controversy of internet censorship can be evaluated. The controversy of internet censorship has been looked into with a great amount of detail in both scholarly works as well as news articles. There is a greater amount of information on internet censorship that has been published through news articles, so I tried to use newspapers that have been considered as impartial and trustworthy as possible. There has been excellent coverage on both sides of the debate pertaining to the question of value is internet censorship beneficial? The majority of authors I have encountered have argued that when it comes to oppressive regimes such as those in China, Internet censorship is not beneficial but harmful to what they consider to be universal human rights that all people should have. In the scope of Education, there is a fairy even distribution of people on both sides of the issue. As aforementioned, a commonplace amongst researchers is that there should be some internet censorship when it comes to young children, but the difference in opinions, beliefs, and values lie within what age censorship needs to begin and end. Overall I believe that the controversy has a balanced amount of information on both ends of the spectrum, and that many standpoints were based upon being American citizens or citizens of other free countries where there are not as many restrictions upon social movements and information.
Part 2: Position on the question of value.
The question of value that is at the foundation of this research is: Is Internet censorship beneficial? Because this is such a broad topic, I am focusing on Internet censorship in China. Now that the scope has been confined to Internet censorship in China, my position is that Internet censorship in China is not beneficial.
Before going into detail on claims that pertain to Internet censorship, let me first define what I believe censorship is to give a clear foundation to examine my claims and evidence from:
Censorship is the suppression of speech, writing, or any form of communication that may obtain harmful, questionable, sensitive, and transgressional information or material. Censorship also encompassed editing audio, video, writing, or imagery in order to place positive connotation to regularly negatively viewed subjects. These suppressive rules are constituted by either government or authoritative bodies and institutions that are in power in the regions that are affected by censorship.
I would first like to discuss the claim that Internet censorship allows the Chinese government to control its political agenda and citizens without fear of retaliation. Being a Communist Republic, China and Chinese citizens have different political views than I have as a part of a Democratic government and as an American citizen. I am not familiar with Communist laws and regulations, and accept that my ignorance in this field of politics will indefinitely affect my standpoint on the issue of China’s government control and political ideology. Having said that, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech in February of 2011 where she stated “The freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online comprise what I have called the freedom to connect. The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same” (Martinez, 2011, p. 1). As was stated by Hillary Clinton, the freedom of assembly is a right that American citizens enjoy without fear of military involvement and having peaceful protests is never met with violent resistance. That is because in the United States, when planning or organizing a protest, even if it is to criticize government or religious institutions, it is allowed as long as the protest stays peaceful. In China, there have been many cases of protests being stopped before even taking place, as was the case when “hundreds of Chinese police officers along with more than 120 vehicles flooded Beijing’s central pedestrian shopping area, Wangfujing, around the site of a second attempted ‘jasmine rally inspired by pro-democracy protests in Tunisia” (Kent, 2011, p. 1). This fortifies the claim that the Chinese government controls its citizens as it intercepts and censors information. The article goes on to say that foreign press at the event were beaten and detained, and escorted away from the site (Kent, 2011, p. 1). This entails that even those who attempt to cover pro-democracy rallies that are not Chinese citizens are subjected to Chinese law.
One of the fundamental reasons that China has for censoring content on the Internet is because there is such a large number of users based in China alone. “China has a community of Web users that is among the most dynamic in the world. There are more than 70 million bloggers in China, and last month officials proudly announced that the number of Internet users had approached 300 million, more than in any other country” (Jacobs, 2009, p. 1). Due to the internet having such a free-flowing structure where information could easily slip through to China, it is imperative for the Chinese government to maintain control over its people through internet censorship practices. With over 25% of its population on the Internet, China has employed an estimated 250,000 “50 Cent Party” commentators, who reportedly receive 50 cents for each pro-government post they publish on public forums and websites that have the appearance of starting anti-government discussions (Calingaert, 2010, p. 69). This paranoid and restrictive behavior by the Chinese government channels the assumption that they know what they are doing is wrong, and many of the authors of articles I have read seem to agree. There is a definite undertone of wrongdoing by the Chinese government, but their tight grip over the people and the power that derives from that would be too much to give up through democratic reform, so Internet censorship not only goes on, but often tightens up; “. Algorithms weed out postings that include words like “democracy,” “Dalai Lama” or “Tiananmen massacre.” When those fail, the legions of censors employed by privately owned Web sites are ready to step into the breach. (Jacobs , 2009, p.1). This constant form of censorship is not simply done by constantly checking websites for questionable material, but “the Chinese government keeps constant surveillance online via its infrastructural and technological equipments and skills, and there are signs that the authority has stepped up such surveillance in recent years” (Liang & Lu, 2010, p. 114). This surveillance allows instantaneous removal of content as soon as it is posted, and is prevalent both in the home as well as in public areas such as internet cafe’s and schools.
Another way that Internet censorship exerts control over the Chinese citizens is through the power of example set by the Chinese government. Individuals who criticize the government online are subject to “harsh prison sentences, intimidation, surveillance, harassment, arbitrary arrest, and even torture” (Calingaert, 2010, p. 69). As a free individual who has spoken out against the government online and at rallies, I cannot imagine being imprisoned or harassed for my actions that simply aim to bring light to unjust behavior carried out by people in positions of power. Imagine passing on government information that was given to you in a document that urged the suppression of an anniversary of a political event that happened several years earlier. You awake one morning to the sound of police knocking on your door, and are sentenced to ten years in prison for sending foreign-based websites the text of an internal Communist Party message. This is sadly what happened to a Chinese man named Shin Tao, who’s personal e-mail information was given to the Chinese Government in order to have evidence to arrest him for crimes against the Republic of China (Reporters Without Border, 2005). This form of creating examples out of people who attempt to transgress Chinese Internet censorship laws is very common. One other case caught my eye, which was very similar to Shi Tao’s case. Zhang Yuhui was imprisoned for ten years for running the Chinese branch of The Epoch Times, an online news site; “The website would present uncensored news for people, especially for the Chinese, because the Chinese have no access to free news” (Philipp, 2005, p. 1). For his transgressive attempts at providing the Chinese people with free and uncensored information he is “known to have been tortured by the Chinese authorities in the early years of his arrest.” (Philipp, 2010, p. 1). This unfortunate use of fear-instilling techniques keeps Internet censorship alive in China, where people are afraid of rallying or protesting the government in fear of being tortured or arrested, and possibly never seeing their families again.
I now would like to go into the claim that Internet censorship allows the Chinese government to block popular social media sites and public forms of communicating, and work together with U.S. based companies to financially exploit Chinese citizens in the process. According to Andrew Lih, visiting professor of New Media at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Chinese government blocks certain sites in order “to giver their own companies a competitive advantage” (as cited in Greengard, 2010, p. 17). What this entails is the Chinese government taking popular social media sites such as Facebook and Youtube, and blocking them. Through this action, China forces its citizens to use alternative Chinese “copies” of these popular sites that have government produced propaganda as well as advertisements that pay royalties to the government instead of the original creators of the websites (Greengard, 2010, p. 17). This practice financially exploits its citizens, and an example of extreme financial exploitation is in the case of RenRen, the Chinese version of Facebook; “According to TechRice, ‘RenRen is without exaggeration the most profitable social network in China.'” (as cited in Gobry, 2011). Due to government censorship of Facebook, Renren has total market control when it comes to social media, and products that carry the RenRen name are sold to citizens who are sometimes not even aware that there are any alternatives. This creates a thriving economic powerhouse for China to tap into that leaves other overseas companies out of the loop.
This is considered by me to be financial exploitation because on top of censoring Chinese citizens, the Chinese government creates revenue for itself by doing so. In effect, China is denying people access to information, and through that action is funneling all of its citizens into a highly regulated and controlled market that it both enforces and maintains. There is a deeply rooted value of cultural cohesiveness here, in the sense that China aims to keep its country as closely knit as possible and attempts to keep as much information coming in from the outside out. As a student who uses social media sites, I could not imagine having government run social media sites that monitor and censor information posted upon them. Social media is a form of communication that is open to all in America, and does not have any political or religious or any other institutional filters on it for that matter. This allows free trade and non selective advertisements to be chosen to be displayed, allowing a broad perspective on different subjects and also options when it comes to spending money. Unfortunately, China-specific censorship conditions are leaking into the United States. According to Tim Wu (2010) firms such as Youtube and Facebook “are under strong pressure to censor from powerful governments, religious groups, political parties, and essentially any outfit with a reason to want information repressed” (p. 1). This creates an infringement on my First Amendment right as well as my right to information as an American Citizen, and my background of having lived in two free countries in my life leads me to believe that these requests are causing China to impede on American forms of public communication.
It was quite surprising to find out in my research that China is stuck in a cycle of economic trade-offs with the United States. When China censors Internet content and blocks sites like Facebook and Youtube, it does so with American software such as WebSense, which is an American based company that sells China-specific censorship software to China (Calingaert, 2010). This is surprising to me because as having learned American values of freedom and equality for all, it seems hypocritical to me for an American company to sell censorship programming to the Chinese government. To add to the surprise, these business negotiations go on even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had declared a new policy on Internet freedom that emphasize the United States enforcing the free use of internet on a global scale and support censorship circumvention software (Landler & Knowlton, 2011). I find it appropriate to here re-state the quote from James that I brought up in the second issue in the initial discussion of the controversy: “Ironically, it was U.S. technology firms that created much of the technology supporting the Great Firewall” (James, 2009)” The United States is now actively fighting a problem that it has helped create and capitalize on.
Part 3: Responsiveness and Accountability
My advocation that Internet censorship is not beneficial in the sphere of China and its government as well as its citizens could possibly have a positive impact for change. My advocacy for freedom in China could impact others to perhaps look into the subject, and join in with me in speaking for those who cannot speak out themselves. The right to free speech is one that is often gone unnoticed, and I have also taken it for granted. Looking at China and their harshly regulated Internet, I am aware that my standpoint is mainly influenced by my being an American citizen who is lucky enough to be a free internet user. Open access to information is a value that I cherish deeply, as information is the key to making a difference. One has to be informed to make decisions that will positively affect the future, and in order to make positive choices there must be balanced partiality flowing through the individual. I have been affected by making this decision, because I never took into account how valuable information is because I have always had open access to it. Information and the freedom to say what I want online has never been a right or privilege to me, but simply a normality, something that has always been there and will always be there. I now see that this is not the case for everyone, and that many people are subjected to limited freedom of information online, and I believe that leads to them possibly making poorly informed decisions and drawing incorrect conclusions when it comes to their government.
My perspective of this topic comes from me being an internet user and not being able to picture having limited access to not just information, but to social media sites and advertisements. I value freedom of speech as well as knowledge, and seeing as both of these values are restricted in China when it comes to Internet censorship, it is only natural that I feel so strongly that Internet censorship is not beneficial in China. It is one of my assumptions that Chinese citizens themselves also want freedom of speech and information. I understand that this may not be the case, but coming from my position as an individual guaranteed freedom by the First Amendment, I must make the assumption that others would want the same freedoms that I enjoy everyday. I acknowledge that there are arguments against my position and value those opinions and researchers for allowing me to understand not just my side but theirs as well when it comes to being as impartial as possible. I know it is impossible to be completely impartial when topics such as these appear, and I believe many assumptions and values of mine came through in my writing. I believe that the possible impacts I may make include negative and positive ones, and I hold myself accountable for both. When negative impacts are expressed by others I hope that my research and evaluation of both sides of the spectrum will add credibility to my claims and position.
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