Democracy & Technology Blog China and the Internet

China is creating a State Internet Commission. The actual title is “State Internet Information Office.”

The department, known as the State Internet Information Office, will direct, coordinate and supervise online content management and handle administrative approval of businesses related to online news reporting, it said.
The office will work to implement the policies of Internet communication and promote legal system construction in this field, it said.
It will direct the development of online gaming, online video and audio businesses and online publication industries, it said.
The office will be engaged in promoting construction of major news websites and managing government online publicity work.
It is assigned the duties to investigate and punish websites violating laws and regulations.
It will oversee telecom service providers in their efforts to improve the management of registration of domain names, distribution of IP addresses, registration of websites and Internet access.
It will also guide the work of Internet information offices at the local levels.

In 2008, Congress appropriated $30 million to tear down China’s Internet firewall. There is no indication this initiative has had any impact. China apparently still believes the Internet can be controlled.
According to Michael Wines at the New York Times, Chinese bureaucrats are desperately competing for rights to regulate the Internet.

The mushrooming growth of China’s Internet business has spawned a sort of land rush for regulatory turf by government agencies that see in it a chance to gain more authority or more money, or both. At least 14 government units, from the culture and information technology ministries to offices that oversee films and books, have some hand in what appears on China’s Internet. Others have interests in Internet-related ventures like the sale of censorship software that could prove to be lucrative sources of income.

This sounds a bit like our own Federal Communications Commission, whose jurisdiction is currently limited to the broadcast, telephone, cable and satellite industries. The FCC is trying to perpetuate its own relevance by laying claim to wireline broadband and wireless services. The agency made a power grab in December for broadband Internet access services.
Some see the Internet as a government success story. Although the Internet may have once been a government research project, private investors turned it into a global phenomenon.
Our own government is advocating Internet regulation domestically while it encourages foreign governments to take a hands-off approach.
Speaking in January, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton celebrated the benefits of an Internet that was commercialized by private investors.

Over the last year, I’ve seen this firsthand in Kenya, where farmers have seen their income grow by as much as 30 percent since they started using mobile banking technology; in Bangladesh, where more than 300,000 people have signed up to learn English on their mobile phones; and in Sub-Saharan Africa, where women entrepreneurs use the internet to get access to microcredit loans and connect themselves to global markets.

Now Clinton urges foreign governments to permit Internet freedom. She worries that “a new information curtain is descending across much of the world.”
In the same speech, Clinton recognizes that private companies have compelling incentives to allow their customers to access any websites they choose and to protect consumer privacy.

Consumers everywhere want to have confidence that the internet companies they rely on will provide comprehensive search results and act as responsible stewards of their own personal information. Firms that earn that confidence of those countries and basically provide that kind of service will prosper in the global marketplace. I really believe that those who lose that confidence of their customers will eventually lose customers. No matter where you live, people want to believe that what they put into the internet is not going to be used against them.

So why is it that the Obama Administration is determined to regulate broadband Internet access services? Why is it that corporations who are white hats internationally are also black hats domestically?
Both the American and Chinese governments, one suspects, see the Internet as a threat. While the Chinese government is worried about dissidents, the American government is worried about corporations. Both governments are attempting to neutralize opponents.
Is foreign policy simply “we win, they lose,” or is foreign policy about setting a good example? If we want to lead by example, why are we trashing China when our own government is seeking to regulate the Internet in a more nuanced but equally self-serving manner?
Shouldn’t we get our own house in order before we criticize others?

Hance Haney

Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project
Hance Haney served as Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project at the Discovery Institute, in Washington, D.C. Haney spent ten years as an aide to former Senator Bob Packwood (OR), and advised him in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee during the deliberations leading to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He subsequently held various positions with the United States Telecom Association and Qwest Communications. He earned a B.A. in history from Willamette University and a J.D. from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.