By John Frederick Kaufman
The notion that the internet would prove an unmitigated boon for the spread of democracy and human rights neglected the Achilles’ heel of digital communication: online speed, reach and access can be centrally controlled, either by a few big corporations who make (and profit from) the means to transmit the stuff or authoritarian governments that control the wires and corporations. Also neglected was the potential for the easy dissemination of lies and propaganda thanks to an electronic medium that can by-pass editors and promotes anonymity. An authoritarian-minded government can censor what flows through its own wires and influence the affairs of other, freer nations, as the Russian government apparently tried to do in the 2016 U.S. election.
Now PEN America has released an in-depth report based on interviews with writers, artists, activists and social media employees in China that documents how the Chinese government is striving to limit the speech of writers and dissidents on social media. What follows is part of the “Forbidden Feeds” report’s Executive Summary:
“Chinese authorities are continually developing and fine-tuning their ability to censor their citizens on social media, to access their private information, and to interfere with and surveil even private communications on social media platforms . . . Under [President] Xi, China has enacted a raft of new laws and regulations enlarging the legal framework for its control of the internet, while centralizing power over social media in the hands of high-level decision makers . . . control of social media is an essential part of China’s “cyber sovereignty” model, a vision that rejects the universalism of the internet in favor of the idea that each country has the right to shape and control the internet within its own borders. While the concept of cyber sovereignty predates Xi, he has actively worked to export it to the world, meeting a receptive audience in authoritarian leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia.”
It doesn’t take a lot of pondering to understand why the idea of “cyber sovereignty” is attractive to despotic leaders who want to control political discourse. Americans at present still enjoy (if that’s the right word) unfettered internet freedom, but the current administration has spoken about sovereignty in terms of “America First,” which can easily evolve into a Trump First sort of credo, especially as he and his administration come under more and more media and legal scrutiny. Already the concept of “net neutrality” has been undermined by Trump’s FCC and President Trump has publicly attacked media organizations he disapproves of. Trump has spoken highly of China’s President Xi Jinping. At a recent Republican fund-raiser at Mar-a-Lago, Trump reportedly said, speaking of President Xi:
“He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great,” Trump said. “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
A joke, perhaps, but I doubt all the oppressed and jailed dissidents in China will find it very funny. Nor should Americans concerned with defending democracy and human rights pass over the remark too quickly; we Americans must not take our First Amendment right to free expression for granted. Here is what PEN America calls upon the U.S. government to do in light of this report on Chinese internet censorship:
“Unequivocally and publicly speak out in support of free expression and press freedom, in the U.S. and around the world.
Publicly and privately advocate for the removal of restrictions on free expression, including but not limited to the online censorship regime, with diplomatic counterparts in China.”
The report also calls for U.S. and other foreign social media companies not to cooperate with any demands for the censoring of their platforms or violations of privacy in China. In other words, don’t put profit over democratic principle.
The internet is proving to be, at best, a mixed blessing for the education of most subjects, including truth and justice. Whether the cause of democracy and humane civilization is ultimately helped or harmed by all things digital we may not ever be able to fully measure, but while the internet exists and while it remains a vehicle for free expression, writers are responsible for using it to do what the best writers have always done: use words well in the service of freedom, peace and the pleasure words, freely composed, bring to us all.