April 02, 2009

China to Require Internet Licenses -- But the Battle is Already Lost

Greetings. Less than a week after YouTube access was restored in China (it apparently reappeared last Friday, but this wasn't reported as widely as the original blocking), word is coming from China that most (all?) Internet content providers will officially need to obtain government licenses to legally disseminate their materials on the Internet. The usual (for China) list of "prohibited topics" will be attached to this expanded licensing requirement.

The idea of licensing users of the Internet one way or another is not a new one by any means. I regularly need to "educate" upset parties who approach me with the erroneous concept that if only everyone using the Internet were fully identified at all times, the Net would become an online nirvana free of spam, scams, scums, bums, pimps, porn, and all that pesky political content that they so abhor.

What's really interesting about the situation in China regarding the Internet is how utterly bizarre it obviously has become. The Chinese, with the clear goal of a "soft landing" into the financial and development world of the 21st century without the baggage of broad political or speech freedoms, have become an object lesson in the confusion that results when governments attempt to manage Internet content. (Presumably the Australian government, bent on its own vast Internet censorship track, is hoping to avoid China's mistakes -- but failure here too is ultimately inevitable.)

Direct access to particular Internet sites from China is blocked, then unblocked. New rules for Internet users appear, and are promptly evaded. Deals for controlled content arise, while simultaneously other services from the same entities inevitably facilitate Chinese access to "forbidden fruits" of the Net. Enforcement of Internet-related rules in China is necessarily spotty, tending to focus on political or the most egregious (by Chinese standards) violators.

Yet the Chinese citizenry by and large -- in much the same manner that they've been doing for thousands of years -- typically find ways to work around the oppressive bureaucracy.

Unless China cuts itself off entirely from the Internet -- a virtual if not physical impossibility -- the trend lines are clear. The Chinese people will continue to obtain ever greater access to the vast array of unapproved Internet content. Attempts to restrict this access may protect some Chinese bureaucrats' jobs for a period of time, but the thrust of history in the long run is clear -- information in the hands of the people is the ultimate political power, and it's simply not possible to control the benefits of the Net in a micromanaged manner.

Once you plug that jack into the Internet router, you are part of the global community in a manner that civilization has never before seen. Governments around the world continue to assume (or at least hope) that the Net can somehow be bent to their wills like any other technology with an origin in the sphere of defense and military research.

But by enabling effectively unrestricted communications between people anywhere on the planet, in ways both infinitely extensible and mutable, it becomes more obvious every day that the Internet -- in one form or another -- is a game changer not of years, or centuries, but of millennia.

There will be ups and downs, struggles with censorship, and continuing battles to minimize the privacy threats that have accompanied the rise of the Net.

But the Internet and its vast potential for two-way communications is already arguably weaving itself more deeply into our psyches than the telegraph or telephone, perhaps even more so than printing, newspapers, and books themselves.

Where precisely this will lead us is not clear. But lead us it will, the protests of governments and Luddites alike notwithstanding. The Internet is the purest and most fundamentally egalitarian form of communications yet developed by mankind.

Get used to it.


Posted by Lauren at April 2, 2009 10:04 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein