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Is the Ball in Chinese Netizens' Court?

Is the Ball in Chinese Netizens' Court?

Google, the U.S. and China have all spoken out on Internet censorship, and the three parties -- Google and the U.S. on one side, an increasingly strident China on the other -- seem pretty well dug in. Where debate is alive is among Chinese Web users, who are tweeting and blogging their views. Do the Chinese people want an open Internet? Will they be the ones to tear down the 'Great Firewall'?

By Katherine Noyes
01/25/10 11:49 AM PT

The Chinese government issued a series of statements over the weekend that defended the country's Internet censorship policies and accused the United States of maintaining a "double standard" when it comes to online surveillance.

The comments, made through the state news agency Xinhua, were in part a reaction to statements made by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week on the topic of Internet freedom.

Also referenced was Google's announcement almost two weeks ago that it was rethinking its presence in China following a series of cyberattacks it said originated there.

A 'Groundless' Accusation

"Accusation that the Chinese government participated in [a] cyberattack, either in an explicit or inexplicit way, is groundless and aims to denigrate China," an unnamed spokesperson of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said on Sunday. "We [are] firmly opposed to that.

"China's policy on Internet safety is transparent and consistent," the spokesman added.

The country's regulation of the Internet is legal and has nothing to do with the claims of "restrictions on Internet freedom," an unidentified spokesperson with China's State Council Information Office told Xinhua, according to a separate report.

'Double Standards'

Strongest of all, a commentary published by Xinhua called Clinton's statements "inconsistent with the facts" and "clearly yet another example of the double standards that the United States applies."

The United States "often gossips about other countries' policies on administering the Internet, but at the same time it takes similar measures to minimize the spread of illegal information," the commentary charges, citing the approval of the Patriot Act following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as an example. "That shows that the United States takes a strict line with other countries, but not with itself."

Continuing criticisms of China's Internet policies "would harm China-U.S. relations," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu said, according to a report published by Xinhua on Friday.

'Predictable' Response

"This was predictable, though [it] took longer than we expected," Google spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker told TechNewsWorld.

Regarding Secretary of State Clinton's comments, "we do agree with her points that cybersecurity is a global issue, and international co-operation is essential in tackling this problem," Hazelbaker added.

Indeed, "it's not an unexpected move from China," agreed Danny O'Brien, international outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

On China's charges that the United States maintains a double standard, "it has to be admitted that they're right," O'Brien told TechNewsWorld. "The U.S. does not currently have the world's best track record for that kind of surveillance."

That said, "I don't think if a country goes past what is legal or legitimate under its own laws and the laws of international standards of human rights, they can expect a company to go along with them," O'Brien asserted.

'Feeling the Pressure'

Though it did mention the Google situation, Clinton's speech "had been planned for a very long time -- I don't think it was in reaction to this specific incident," O'Brien pointed out.

Nevertheless, "the combination of these two things must mean China is in some ways feeling the pressure," he added.

The situation has already harmed U.S. relations with China, he said, "but China and U.S. relations have not always been the most cordial. Sometimes you have to expect some chilling effects when bad actors are caught out."

'A Lot More Debate Within China'

As far as where things may go from here, "the predicted end game is that if Google continues to maintain only an uncensored Chinese language Web site, they will be required to leave China," O'Brien predicted. "Then I think we can really see what will happen, both from a business point of view and from practical capabilities."

Ironically, what China does next "is going to be more influenced by how Chinese citizens are seeing all this play out," O'Brien predicted.

On Twitter, for instance, one key trending topic recently is "GFW," or "Great Firewall of China," he noted, and it's a topic that has been initiated more among Chinese citizens than outsiders.

"That, I think, is the most direct thing all of this has done," O'Brien concluded. "It's led to a lot more debate within China as to whether the Great Firewall is really a good idea."


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