Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Mr. Hu, Tear Down This Firewall

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, January 26, 2010 --  

Despite corporate and political collaboration with tyrants, America can still lead the battle for freedom on the Internet.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out in favor of Internet freedom last week1, her words were taken as a response to China's Internet repression.2 Her speech closely followed reports of last month's presumably state-sponsored hacker attack on Google and other sites that Google says targeted accounts of Chinese dissidents.3 Google has since threatened to pull out of China, and has also threatened to stop censoring its search results at the behest of the Chinese government.4

Clinton's tepid speech pales in comparison to Reagan's powerful "Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down this Wall!" And while any condemnation of China's deplorable record on human rights and media censorship is welcome, the Obama administration can hardly be considered to have the moral high ground. In July 2008, presidential candidate and then Senator Barak Obama voted for immunity5 for AT&T, Verizon, and Bell South for illegally assisting government agencies in spying on Americans's phone calls and Internet traffic in the years after 9/11. (Then Senator Clinton voted against this law.)

Back then, the American government effectively did the same thing as the Chinese government -- it spied on its own citizens' Internet use. Bush-era security agencies used the tools of fear and intimidation, dressed up with patriotism, to convince some American telecommunication companies to be informants about their customers and fellow countrymen. Since China couldn't do this with Google, they had to resort to the tools of the hacking trade. In each case, however, the goal was shamefully the same: for security agencies to collect information on perceived domestic enemies.

It is no secret why the Chinese government focuses on the Internet as a means of controlling its people -- the Internet is where all the action is. In the last century, revolutionaries' first target upon taking power was the radio or television station. In the 21st century, the country's national firewall, or similar telecommunications infrastructure will be the primary target. One need only look at Iranian protesters' use of Twitter to organize against the state to understand why.

As the Internet services continue to grow at breakneck speed, it is disproportionately American companies that are on the leading edge. This leadership provides two fantastic opportunities to fight against China's autocrats, without relying on morally-dubious elements in the Obama administration and collaborationist high-tech companies.

First, human rights organizations can partner with technology enthusiasts to build systems to circumvent China's domestic stranglehold on the Internet. Web savvy citizens of repressive regimes have long known how to use anonymous proxy servers and encrypted connections to avoid censorship and spying, but these technologies are often slow and difficult to use for less sophisticated users. With a bit of design panache and persistence, systems to bypass China's snooping and censorship could be made fast, slick, and dead simple to use -- ultimately rendering China's online repression obsolete.

This may lead to a short-term technology arms race between China's censors and their external adversaries. But China's Big Brother would be soon forced to resort to blunt techniques that would cripple China's use of the Internet for economic purposes, forcing the government to back down.

There's another way America can help: Congress can pass a law to make it easier for victims of oppression to sue for damages against collaborationist U.S. companies. Years before Google began operating in China and censoring its search results, Yahoo was doing China's dirty work. In 2004, when Chinese reporter Shi Tao used his Yahoo account to forward a Communist Party email warning not to cover the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Yahoo turned him in the Chinese government's request, and he was sent to prison for 10 years.6

Faced with a public rebuke in Congressional hearings, Yahoo settled a lawsuit brought by human rights activists and relatives of political prisoners before it went to trial.7 As a result, it's unclear whether American companies are liable under U.S. law for assisting online repression. A more explicit law would undoubtedly dissuade companies from collaboration. While this might simply cause American Internet companies to pull out of China, this result may not be a bad thing.

Remember that American companies lead the world in Internet services. Forcing China to settle for half-baked domestic clones of American Internet services would put the country in a similar position to the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. Denied access to Western technology, Soviets had to mimic it as best they could with rust-bucket two-stroke automobiles and half-functioning clones of American personal computers. Unable to keep up with Western technological progress, the Soviet Union's decrepit and closed system collapsed on itself.

No, getting Google and Yahoo to end their collaboration and pull out of China won't cause the quick demise of China's communist regime. But loudly denying the Chinese government the ability to use American web services as tools of repression is a powerful way to underscore the unacceptable grimness of China's record on human rights. For morally-challenged business leaders this approach would send a second message: to the extent that the Internet is an engine of economic growth, in China, the engine will be at best a two-stroke clone.

Related Web Columns:

Good Corp, Bad Cop?, March 4, 2008

Trolling Through Your Life
The Betrayal of Telecom Customers
, May 16, 2006


1. The Internet War, Washington Post, January 25, 2010

2. U.S. State Department, Remarks on Internet Freedom, January 21, 2010

3. The Guardian, Google the Latest Victim of Chinese 'State-Sponsored' Cyberwar, January 14, 2010

4. Google Official Blog, A New Approach to China, January 12, 2010

5. New York Times, Obama Voters Protest His Switch on Telecom Immunity, July 7, 2008

6. BBC, US Rebukes Yahoo Over China Case, November 6, 2007

7. Human Rights USA, Familes of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning (Yahoo! Inc), As posted January 26, 2010