The West and China Are Converging on Online Speech and Privacy Rights
Near the outset of my time as a correspondent for The New York Times in China in the early 2000s, during one of my regular conversations with my research assistants, I had an idea for a story that I thought was promising. Beijing was just then cracking down on both video game parlors and internet access, with authorities saying that age limits needed to be imposed and real-name identification required in order to do many things online.
At the time, the state used pornography as the rationale for the moves, arguing that online smut would poison the minds of the youth if strict controls were not placed on internet use. Surely, I told my staff, all of them Chinese nationals, this is just political cover in order to justify encroaching on online freedoms more generally. But they did not agree. How could anyone defend pornography, one of them objected? Although I thought I had made it obvious, that was not my intention.
Despite their opposition, I pursued my idea, even as internet controls in China began to take other forms. Sometime later, for example, I visited the campus of a university in Shanghai, where a team of student censors worked zealously in a hidden-away office to silently intercept and delete writings posted to university message boards and elsewhere on the internet that might displease the Chinese Communist Party and government.
Given the growth of the Chinese internet and the sophistication of censorship efforts in that country today, this may seem to some readers almost like ancient history. I begin with this anecdote, though, to illustrate just how closely issues of privacy and censorship are tracking each other, albeit in parallel, in the United States and China, despite the two countries’ very different political systems.
In the United States today, members of Congress and the public are outraged by the behavior of Facebook and some of its subsidiary companies. Facebook has been rightly denounced as a conduit for politically dangerous “fake news” and other forms of disinformation often promoted by foreign powers—a longstanding complaint of the Chinese government against all information coming from outside the country—while Instagram has been called a toxic cesspool, especially for young girls. The “solutions” to these problems, whether undertaken to no one’s satisfaction by Facebook or those recently proposed by some in Congress, bear an eerie resemblance to measures first adopted in China. Facebook employs teams of people to read content posted on its site to flag the most objectionable material, whether hate speech or dangerously false news—about, say, vaccines—for removal. Dissatisfied with the results of this approach, which strikes many critics as half-hearted and mostly meant to forestall deeper regulation, some legislators are now doing just what Beijing did: demanding real-name identification online.
There are important differences, of course, between a censorship regime that is imposed and policed in order to promote and defend an authoritarian state dominated by a powerful, single party, and limitations placed on free speech in a society where political competition is a reality and where the very first amendment to the constitution was written to guarantee nearly unlimited expression.
Already, the degree to which Chinese and Western internet and privacy governance differ is far less than most people living in democracies assume.
The convergence between China and the United States, and indeed other parts of the world, on this score is likely to accelerate nonetheless, as computer technology grows much more powerful, and the internet and other features of data usage grow ever more pervasive in people’s lives.
Already, the degree to which Chinese and Western internet and privacy governance differ is far less than most people living in democracies assume. After an apartment I once rented in Shanghai was robbed, the police invited me into a dark viewing room filled with computers and giant displays and showed me photos of every person in the city who carried the same name as one of the main suspects. The presentation of the scrolling images, a kind of digital lineup, took about 20 minutes, leaving me both amazed and troubled.
In the decade or so since that incident, though, this would be considered old hat in any large American city, where law enforcement have access to enormous amounts of data about citizens, and where discreetly lodged video cameras, as in China, capture our every public act for potential review and incrimination.
Western countries increasingly profess unease about the implications of data capture, whether by big tech companies like Facebook or the state, but they have not found truly effective ways of containing it or, more importantly, protecting the public interest. Privacy itself is an eroding concept, and even the European Union’s recently implemented or proposed regulatory measures tinker at the margins in an effort that every day is quietly losing ground to the power of technology. The struggle to preserve privacy will play out on numerous fronts, and the Facebooks and Instagrams of the world reflect only a small portion of the battleground.
Military language like this is especially well-suited to this topic, because defense and national security are themselves becoming ever more powerful drivers of change than social media, albeit so far less publicly discussed.
In China, the state can readily harness the power of its biggest companies not only to police the population, but for tasks like harvesting big data for competitive purposes. One of these, for example, involves genetic information about large population groups that can be used in new, frontier forms of medicine. Others may involve predictive behavior studies of all sorts, such as trying to shape public opinion or anticipate and preempt dissent. Technologies like these will be combined with artificial intelligence, another top state priority, in ways that few ordinary people can fully anticipate today.
Western states may say, and indeed some experts are already arguing, that concerns about privacy, or maintaining a divide between the public and private sectors, seem vain and precious in the face of increasing competition with an authoritarian superpower. They are wrong, but you should expect to hear more of this kind of argument.
As difficult as it may seem to conceive of ways to protect privacy rights, freedom of speech and private enterprise that is not wholly subsumed into the projects of the state, these are the very things that distinguish the free from the unfree. And at a certain point, losing them in the name of competition means blinding oneself to what the competition was supposed to have been about in the first place.
Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer, and the author of five books, including “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World.” You can follow him on Twitter at @hofrench. His WPR column appears every Wednesday.