Computing Profession

Rebecca Mackinnon Discusses Threats to Internet Freedom: Part 2

Rebecca MacKinnon
Rebecca MacKinnon is a cofounder of Global Voices Online, an international bloggers’ network, and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

In Part 1 of the interview, Rebecca MacKinnon, author of Consent Of The Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom, observes many people don’t realize that most of the censorship and surveillance in China is not being done by the government, but by companies at the behest of the government. She elaborates in this second half of the interview.

Rebecca MacKinnon: For instance, everybody has heard of the "Great Firewall" of China that blocks Facebook and Twitter and my blog and lots of other Web sites, but that’s only the top layer of censorship in that country. Most people in China use online services run by Chinese companies which are all held liable by the government for what their users do. They have entire departments full of people whose job it is not only to keep porn off their site but also to control political activity on their site. Company employees hand over user information to the authorities when somebody’s account becomes politically active, they remove blog posts and tweets on government instruction. Because if they don’t do that, they’ll quickly be out of business.

You mention in your book that U.S. companies are also helping the Chinese government.

Yes. And that’s because any company that is running any kind of user-generated content service or search engine in China has to comply with the same rules that apply to Chinese companies. There have been some really unfortunate incidents over the years. Yahoo! went into China in the late 1990s and set up a Chinese version of their email service. Then, of course, they were expected to hand over Internet email users’ information to the police, which resulted in dissidents going to jail. Some of the other companies that went in later — like Microsoft and Google — mended up deciding not to do email in China because they didn’t want to do what Yahoo! did. So we are starting to see different companies making different choices. Google pulled its search engine out of China completely because it didn’t want to comply with the censorship requirements anymore.

But now Facebook is talking about wanting to go into China which is such a lucrative market. However, if they go in, they’re going to have to delete content the Chinese government asks them to. There will be no way they can do business in China without being complicit.

How can computer scientists help to ensure a "future of freedom" in the Internet? Give them some advice.

The global engineering community needs to try to understand what the risks are that are faced by users in authoritarian countries and what the obstacles are to free speech. They need to make sure they aren’t inadvertently creating a situation that is less free than it might otherwise be. Because when you’re sitting in the U.S. and you’re trying to engineer a platform or a community or a device for users around the world, of course you’re going to draw from your own experiences, your cultural and political contexts. So sometimes it’s just hard to imagine when you take a device and drop it into Syria or you take a service and start trying to use it in Iran, what the implications are. People need to make sure that, because of what they create, innocent people aren’t put at greater risk.

What discovery most surprised you during the writing of Consent of the Networked?

The U.N. has something called the Internet Governance Forum which is where countries and companies and nongovernmental organizations get together and talk about how the Internet should be regulated and structured. One really interesting thing I learned was that the U.N. undersecretary who presides over this forum used to be China’s chief arms control negotiator. Ironic, eh? That kind of tells you something . . . that the Chinese government has its A team on these issues in terms of defending their interests in Internet governance and standards, and they really see it as part of their long-term national strategy to shape the Internet in a direction they think will favor them. I’m not so sure the U.S. government has its A team on these issues. But it should.

See this YouTube video for additional remarks by MacKinnon.

Paul Hyman is a science and technology writer based in Great Neck, NY.

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