In recent years, the Internet has expanded to many countries around the world. Many hope that these countries, especially third world countries, will be catapulted forward by this expansion. Governments view this development with mixed feelings. Many governments feel a threat to the control they have over their citizens because the Internet brings with it such a wealth of information. Citizens who were previously ignorant may feel suppressed by their governments and feel empowered to perhaps even overthrow their leaders.
It cannot be denied that the Internet brings some threats to nondemocratic rule. The Internet promotes the free exchange of ideas and information, and allows anyone with access to express their opinions to everyone else connected. These are some of the ideals of democracies.
However, despite its threat to their power, leaders must also admit that being connected to the Internet brings many economic advantages, and it would be a blow to any country if Internet access is denied there. This idea may arise from the concept of the digital divide, or more specifically, the global digital divide. The idea is that countries with more Internet penetration can advance more easily because the Internet brings with it many job opportunities that are otherwise unavailable. In addition, the Internet brings a source of education, which is key to finding work and advancing the country. Thus, the Internet is a very useful tool for underdeveloped countries, but unfortunately, it is these same countries that have the most difficulty gaining and maintaining access to the Internet. Even within each country, the digital divide is an issue because it is often difficult for a country to provide Internet access to all its people equally. Even in the United States, for example, those who are among the rural poor and rural and central city minorities, and young and female-headed households have lower rates of Internet access.
The situation is a little different in each country. However, I find it particularly interesting to look at China, partially for personal reasons but more importantly because China stands out a little more than other countries in its current situation. China is not undeveloped, yet it has only newly gained access to Internet. China has tremendous potential for growth, and as the government is finally loosening its hold, there has been so much economic development within the country. For the most part, the Internet seems to be aiding the growth of China. However, the government of China has instigated many regulations intended to filter the content coming through from the Internet.
How does China control Internet traffic? The answer is, of course, through the law. Under Chinese law, any use of the Internet to “destroy the order of society,” “promote sexually suggestive material, gambling, or murder,” “criticize the PRC Constitution,” “damage the reputation of the State,” etc. is prohibited. Aside from the fact that these numerous laws could put a severe chill on Internet speech, they are simply impractical to enforce. The laws themselves are too general and provide no way to evaluate an offense. In addition, there are different sets of regulations from between state and local governments, and no one is exactly clear who has jurisdiction over the Internet.
Nevertheless, the Chinese government has put a tremendous amount of effort into Internet regulation. In addition to technology intended solely for checking online content, there are many agencies who hire people to physically watch over Internet content. According to BusinessWeek, these people number 30,000. The Chinese government also controls certain gateways that all Internet traffic must pass through, which serves as another level of protection. However, filtering all Internet traffic to a whole nation is a difficult task, and websites with similar contents are not consistently blocked.
Businesses and Internet cafes are often put in a position where they must aid the Chinese government’s efforts in censorship of the Internet at the threat of prosecution. IT companies hoping to take root in China are often forced to make compromises in order to do business. Companies are often forced to restrict the content coming through to their users or to disclose private information to the Chinese government.
Internet cafes, as well as ISPs, have their own sets of regulations because they face the threat of prosecution themselves. Internet content providers employ people to monitor forums and chat rooms, and Internet cafes hire managers to watch over what users are doing. From my personal experience at an Internet café in China, managers were especially strict on minors, who apparently were not allowed to have Internet access on weekdays because it was distracting from schoolwork. When I asked how this was enforced, I received the reply that if one student saw another student at an Internet café, he or she would report this to their teacher.
Therefore, besides the government and businesses regulating the Internet, individuals monitor each other’s Internet access. I feel this is one of the many examples of how deep some of the issues are that arise from Internet access.
All this being said, I don’t believe that China’s filtering is necessary to squash political dissent. First off, it’s been established that the filtering is not complete, and therefore, Chinese citizens are inevitably exposed to content prohibited by Chinese law. In addition, many of the ideas that may be prohibited from being written online may manifest in other forms, such as commercials or advertisements by the many foreign companies moving into China. Second, if people are really all that angry at the Chinese government, they would not be helping to regulate Internet access. The fact that it is the general population adheres and enforces Chinese law signifies a certain trust in Chinese leadership.
And in fact, filtering may not be as severe as it is hyped up to be. The reality is that a couple websites and a couple phrases are blocked but compared to how recently the Internet was introduced to such a large country, the improvement is great. I can even go as far as to say that it is understandable that the Chinese government is taking a conservative approach towards Internet access. The country is advancing in many ways very quickly, and the government does not want to lose control even though they want to continue heading in their current direction. The general impression I receive from the average citizen is a pride in their country, not mistrust or fear.
Even though China’s censorship may be the most publicized, other countries around the world also are also filtering Internet content. The European Union prohibits “child pornography and racist material” on its Internet and is trying to promote parents and teachers to help regulate Internet access. In Saudi Arabia, Internet access is filtered through a government control center and sensitive religious and political issues are censored. Even South Korea, considered one of most advanced countries in regards to Internet access, has a list of blocked websites and filters contents at Internet cafes, schools, and public libraries according to Electronic Frontiers.
Many people overlook the fact that even the United States filters its Internet access to some extent. Schools often censor the content coming through to its computers in order to protect students. Search engines, as a general policy, filter their contents. Despite the fact that the federal government granted First Amendment protection to the Internet, individual states are passing laws to do with censorship of the Internet.
Thus, what would seem to be a global network seems to be breaking down into smaller, specialized networks. The question is whether or not this is desirable, and there seem to be good arguments for both sides of the case.
Many had hoped that the Internet would connect people in a way never imagined before, where everyone’s voice was heard equally and judged without bias. It would together the opinions of people from all over the world and all different backgrounds. The Internet would be a medium of change, a way to bring suppressed peoples out of their miseries. However, governments see this as a threat, and by using filters and firewalls, hope to only isolate the economic benefits of the Internet.
However, having completely open Internet access has its advantages as well. Many countries may not be completely ready all the information the Internet brings. It is difficult for one to bring the Internet to countries where no one is able to maintain the computers, and where the country barely has electricity and running water. Aside from this fact, however, if a country is in turmoil and sensitive information from the Internet could jeopardize peace, then I feel like a country is not ready for complete access to the Internet, and a government has the power and the right to censor information on the Internet to maintain order. However, I feel that this applies only to extreme cases, where the stability of a country depends entirely on the ignorance of its people. Often, even if people are introduced to the Internet, they may not have access to a computer to access to the Internet, they may be illiterate, or they may not find supposedly sensitive information on the Internet useful.