Hey China…Stop Censoring The Internet

27 Oct 2010 in Passion

Image credit: Blogger Design

OKAY.

There’s no disputing it: China has been  making leaps and bounds. They boast  the world’s 2nd largest economy. And,  they have been “shucking off”  communism (Source: Tom Friedman,  New York Times) and moving towards  “laying a talent foundation for  the socialism modernization to be  basically realized in the middle period  of this century.”

STOP. CENSORING. THE.  INTERNET.

But, enough already with blocking the Internet (in case you didn’t know, the Chinese government uses a “filtering ‘firewall’ to prevent Internet users from seeing overseas web sites with content anathema to the Communist Party”.). Seriously, this needs to come to an end. Freedom of expression should not be exclusive to democratic societies. The right to access information without being told what you can and cannot read on the web should be granted to the world’s largest population. China has the most Internet users in the world, reaching 420 million in June according to the China Internet Network Information Center. And 72.6% of China is not even using the Internet yet, so I’m more than willing to bet that their astronomical growth of new users will continue for years to come.

INNOVATION WITHOUT FREEDOM? PLEASE.

If China is going to retain its talent and transform itself from “a manufacturing hub to a world leader in innovation” as the grand objective of its “Talent Development Plan” declares, then why don’t they make a loudly emphatic step in the right direction by completely removing their Internet censorship regulations? It would be a monumental change heard ‘round the world. How can a society whose opinions are suffocated become innovative, much less a leader in innovation? Doesn’t innovation inherently require thinking out of the box? Challenging norms? Questioning the way governments and corporations operate?

But, nope, China doesn’t see it this way. Instead, the government has worsened its restrictions. While official numbers are not available, the subject of my upcoming interview – Ben Crox – says that:

For the past 1/2 year, the government has continued spending millions of RMB to upgrade & extend the Great Firewall (“GFW”). Meanwhile, they have also tried to eliminate anonymous mobile web access. China enforces greater censorship since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to dissident Liu Xiao Bo.”

Ben is referencing the imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize a couple weeks ago “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Liu has been a very outspoken journalist who has spent decades criticizing the totalitarian Chinese government in his dream of bringing about a free nation of people able to express themselves freely.

HOW BAD IS IT?

Twitter is blocked. Facebook is blocked. YouTube is blocked. The list goes on… Why? “For fear they will provide a platform to organize or share illicit information.” (Source: Reuters) How are Chinese netizens supposed to benefit from the collective learning available on the web? How are they expected to connect with each other and (perhaps more importantly) the rest of the world to share and learn together? I have benefitted greatly from having access to sites like Twitter. While studying abroad in Singapore (where I had unrestricted access to Twitter/Facebook/etc.) earlier this year, I was able to connect with angel investor/entrepreneur Bill Morrow on Twitter and ended up having a personal meeting with him and being invited to his company AngelsDen’s first funding event in Asia. I also watched countless hours of entrepreneurs’ speeches on YouTube to learn about the ins and outs of starting a company.

WHAT’S NEXT?

In today’s highly interconnected digital world, I cannot imagine tomorrow’s innovators being unable to create value on a level playing field. Not having unrestricted, open access to the Internet is simply a disadvantage too significant to ignore. If you’re going to start a web business, why would you do it in China where you don’t have equal access to the Internet? On next Tuesday, I will travel to China for 3 weeks. I will be blocked from Tweeting, sharing on Facebook, and potentially from blogging about my disagreement with China’s censoring of the Internet.

Tomorrow night, I am going to start posting the segments from my interview with Hong Kong entrepreneur Ben Crox, who will discuss Project West Chamber: an organization whose mission is “to no longer be satisfied with climbing over the Great Firewall of China, but to demolish it altogether”.

  • Ricky Potts

    You know, what makes me mad about China is their censorship of Facebook. You have over 300 million people in China that are using a third party service JUST like Facebook, yet are not allowed to use the actual Facebook service. Imagine though… Facebook currently eats up 36% of ALL web traffic with around 520 million active users. Imagine if those 300 million in China were to join Facebook. That would put Facebook near a billion active users and take another huge chunk of the market share. That day will come, it’s just a matter of when. But thank you for sharing this my friend; well written and well stated!

  • http://www.johnexleyonline.com/ JohnExley

    Ricky – thanks for the thoughts my man. We are on the same page here, I also wish China would open up Facebook and Twitter et. al. to their citizens. I want to be able to connect on Facebook and Twitter with the friends from China that I met in Singapore at conferences! I want to catch up on their tweets, see what they’ve been reading, be able to stay up to date with Chinese startups and also share pictures and see what’s up in the cool cities China has by looking at my China-based friends’ streams on Facebook.But I can’t. See this is what I don’t get about China’s government. What are they so worried about? They have the largest country in the world, the 2nd largest economy in the world, some truly awesome cities like Shanghai, Beijing, etc., I mean I could go on and on. The friends I have in China are very proud of being Chinese and respect the success of their country. Does the government really think that freedom of expression, freedom of the press, free speech, and an open/100% unrestricted Internet are going to lead to their downfall as a global power? ARE THEY SERIOUS? My good friend Nicholas Chan is a VC in Singapore and he is someone I have enjoyed being able to discuss differences with about how the Chinese government enforces laws like this, and he points basically to the idea that China does things its own way; culturally, they have achieved success on their own without following certain things that we throw our arms up about (like the free Internet). I fundamentally disagree with this. I don’t think that a nation that is freed to express itself and access the many awesome resources on the web that are blocked would suddenly turn on the government.Shoot this is much too long of a comment haha. MY POINT is this: why does the Chinese government seem to fear criticism? Let’s pretend China was the 2nd best player in the NBA, LeBron James. LeBron got TORN TO PIECES in the press by everyone and their mother….former teammates, opponents, the game’s greats like Jordan, Barkeley, and Magic, the owner of the Cavs, the entire city of Cleveland, musical artists, bloggers, etc. etc. etc. He got flat out murdered in the press, even to the point of racism tweets thrown at him. But you know what? He RETWEETED their hate for everyone to see. He answered to the haters, acknowledged their viewpoint, and MOVED ON. Hit the gym. Hit the weights. And hit the court. He rose above it, and while I’m not a Heat fan nor a LeBron fan really, I bet you Miami wins a ring in the next 3 seasons…if not more than one. Is LeBron more capable of taking criticism that the CHINESE GOVERNMENT AS A WHOLE? What are you afraid of? Let your people speak, involve their differing opinions, and MOVE FORWARD AS A NATION OF UNITED PEOPLE. Now THAT would be a China that I think ANY entrepreneur (foreign or Chinese) would Love start their company in. I just might blog about this again. Thanks for inspiring me Ricky.

  • Raaid Hossain

    China has effectively blocked the three largest social networks, however, allows their own personal social networks. Obviously there are underlying motives here- personally I think that it has to do with western thought and ideology. As those social media outlets expand and allow a free-flow of information, the higher the possibility for movements to arise in China, who demands absolute control of it’s populous (although not publicly advertised). Access to information, and inter-connectivity- is in my opinion, a human right, and should be treated as such. By keeping such a large population in the dark China is doing a large disservice to the entirety of humanity. Collaboration, and sharing of thoughts is what drives innovation, and progress. By embarking on a chosen path of counter-productivity, China is managing to keep a hold on an ignorant population. I wish you luck in China my friend, log into your email and write your blog entries down, post them when you’re back :) . Is GMAIL allowed in China 0.0?

  • http://twitter.com/TingGao 氵T.in.G

    Good work John. These are somewhat reiterated but nonetheless interesting perspectives. The debate will be likely persist though so a keen observer like yourself will have to follow through. The state’s censoring puts lots of hurdles on the general crowd but we have never been short of ppl like ben crox who relentlessly challenge the norm and create possible albeit limited access for the willing minds. Hope you can continue to explore both sides of the story on your trip to china.
    P.S. get ‘freegate’ or ‘hotspot shield’ to help ya climb over the firewall during ur trip.

  • leemin

    I believe that all should have the freedom of expression as have the right to knowledge. But I believe that knowledge is a privilege and cannot be treated lightly. Moreover, I believe that it should never be about the welfare of an individual but the welfare of the community. 

    For someone who comes from a country that also does some form of censorship in the media (and I might add the government truly and strongly believe in it and are very open about it) I do think that if there is one good reason, it can stay. During a forum a few years back with a minister of state, a question about media censorship was asked and the minister reply was something to the effect of ‘if a set of news was to be released about every single small hoax and threat was to be released, you people will be living in a constant state of fear’ of course, that wasn’t all he said. But that was the most memorable. He also said that he believes in doing what he thinks is the best for the country. To him the best was to protect the interest of the country, and to him that can be done through censorship. If a set of news was to trigger panic, unrest or is not at all beneficial to the security of the nation, then it should be stopped. 

    The intention was not to deceit or to revoke knowledge, but it serves to protect the interest of the nation. Community before self. I think for this reason censorship is justified. 

    One reason why the Chinese government believe in censorship is because they want to ensure that they have no anti-government campaigns or avenues that the people who share the same feelings about the government can come together. For a country that big, I do not quite want to imagine how many lives will be lost (if you have not studied Chinese history, you might be interested to know that people in china die in millions. In all major historical events in china, one similarity across them is the extremely high attrition rate), and I cannot imagine how much more it will cost us to make our daily make-in-china purchases. For the interest of national security, I think that the inconvenience censorship caused is justified. 

    Furthermore, china also does not want it’s people to be exposed to content that might lead them to ideas of violence, revolt or revolutions. Of course, it can be for national security, or for the government party to stay in control, but I choose to believe that no matter which option is the real reason behind the censorship, stability in the country is achieved, and that is the most important. 

    As an Asian student on exchange in Canada right now, I have realized that people in north America has a different world view from an Asian. In this part of the world, individual rights and individual free expression is taken as a right, as something that has to be given to all. The idea of a community seems to take second place. While this is not wrong, we must always take a step back and consider if that is the same worldview that another culture holds. In Asia, the idea of a community is strong, which stems from the emphasis of family and togetherness. We have been taught from young to put our family first, others before self and community before us. (it may not be obvious, but it is actually true!) Therefore when approaching such an issue, we also must look at the cultural context of the nation. In this case if this benefits the nation, it can be acceptable. 

    Finally, let’s face it. China does not need these social networks that the western world has introduce. They have their own. No doubt it isn’t an original idea, but they have taken it and made them their own. You need a search engine? Try baidu! You need an online platform for trading and selling goods? Try alibaba or taobao (taobao is actually alibaba’s subsidiary). You need to watch videos online? Try tudou or youku. You need to social network? Try renrenwang (more affectionately known as xiaonei by students). You need to IM your friends? Try QQ. China on it’s own has all these outlets to serve purposes that western sites have. Maybe it is a plot by the Chinese government to show the world that china can do without them, or maybe china is really a force not to reckon with! It has a domestic market so powerful it is like a little world on it’s own. I think that we should all look beyond the censorship and see what china has done to compensate. They already have very powerful domestic market! 

    I think what I want to say is that we should see china from china’s perspective above our own perspective.  That way, we can unravel what reasons as to why things are done in a certain manner. Furthermore, we should embrace china as what it is! It does have a lot to offer! 

  • http://www.johnexleyonline.com/ JohnExley

    My man Raaid, always can count on you for some well thought out opinions. Thanks dude! First of all, I’m in Beijing right now and Gmail is allowed (although I think it may be watched in China – pretty sure what I send/receive can be viewed by the government? That I’m not entirely sure about but I believe I’ve heard that before).

    I think a lot can be learned about the Chinese ideology and cultural approach to censoring the web by reading Leemin’s comment above. While she helps explain the view of the Chinese government and philosophy, I agree with you Raaid: “Access to information, and inter-connectivity- is in my opinion, a human right, and should be treated as such.”

    I really want to be able to collaborate with Chinese students, aspiring entrepreneurs, current entrepreneurs, investors, writers, etc. Unless I’ve already met them in person and keep in touch over Skype or email, I can’t do that. Why? Because they’re not on Twitter. And I can’t get to know them better on Facebook. China has copied our Twitter and Facebook, and the citizens use them but the problem is that they can’t connect with people out of the country.

    In large part, I don’t think China’s government cares about that. Nevertheless, one of the goals of my trip here in China for the next 3 weeks will be to better understand the “why” of China censoring the web and the freedom of the press. There’s no denying China’s success economically and its rise – but if its at the expense of human rights like freedom of expression and the free access to the Internet, I think there’s a better way.

  • http://www.johnexleyonline.com/ JohnExley

    Ting my brother. Your words always mean a lot to me because you never shy away from differing perspectives and sometimes tough-to-talk-about conflicting opinions. One of the many reasons I have a lot of respect for you.First off: you’re the man for helping me climb over the firewall. I’m trying now my friend. I’m in a hotel in Beijing. Twitter, Facebook, Posterous, videos on TechCrunch: all blocked. I tried to access VPN.American.edu but it said my computer wasn’t properly equipped with the right security software to ‘download the VPN’…so I couldn’t get around the firewall with that. I’m trying ‘hotspot shield’ now thanks to you. Shoooooooot. Looks like I should have downloaded that in the US and not waited til I got here. Google.hk is having trouble accessing the site for hotspotshield.com. Now Google isn’t working for me. I appreciate your point of view that people like Ben Crox will always be there to create access for Chinese netizens who want access to blocked sites on the web. For those who want to be ‘in-the-know’ in China, Ben Crox and others are always doing their best to make ways for them. So absolute totalitarian governing is not achieved as some are able to get around it? My basic issue is this: if freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and unlimited access to information on the Internet are human rights, I think it’s obvious that the government in China needs to provide this. AND: I don’t think China necessarily needs to “become like the west” to continue establishing itself as a superpower in the world. Adding these freedoms will be a major change to the Chinese culture, but ultimately it will be an incredibly good one in my opinion. Do you think that these freedoms would compromise China’s ideologies and cultural identity? Or prevent their economic progress? I don’t. And if you agree they are human rights, then I’m curious if you think that such freedoms can be ignored in a different culture and still be morally/ethically acceptable. Ting: you’re one of the greats bro. I’m pumped I got to meet you in Singapore. Thanks for helping me to learn more about all of this and not letting my stubborn western perspective always get the best of me. Let’s stay in touch forever my man and get at me while I’m in China on Skype…maybe we can discuss more of this that way.