Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Repression's Global Creep

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 3, 2010 --  

Internet restrictions in China and Dubai are bad enough. Worse is the risk they will spread to the rest of us.

It has been a bad week for internet freedom. On Friday, Google announced that China began blocking Google web searches (although it later said the block was only partial and was gone the next day).1 On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates, home to the ultra modern financial center of Dubai, announced plans to block Blackberry access within the country.2

The core issue in both cases is control of information. China's government hates Google's search engine for the same reason that the government of the UAE hates Blackberries. Google allows unfiltered access to taboo information about Tibet and Tiananmen Square. Blackberries allow people in the Emirates to send encrypted messages to each other, frustrating the government's efforts to eavesdrop on residents and visitors. Simply put, authoritarian regimes don't like ideas that are out of their control.

Attempts by overbearing governments to restrict access to the Internet are nothing new. The more repressive nations around the world like Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Turkmenistan have long put severe restrictions on internet access. And while human rights organizations rightfully complain about these restrictions, they really don't matter for people outside these countries, because few people around the world ever need to go there.

What's different about last week's events is that they are severe cases of internet restriction in important world business centers -- China is the manufacturing engine of the world, and the UAE is the financial and business hub for the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Businessmen flying to (or even changing planes in) Dubai may no longer be able to check their email from their Blackberries. Although the actual cause of Thursday's disruption of Google's services in China is still in question (China's government has added to the uncertainty by not explicitly denying blocking Google access), the disruption has created doubt about the viability of Google web services in China. As a result, businesses operating in China know they can't really count on them in the future.

At best, these developments will lead to geographic unreliability of key internet services that Westerners take for granted. At worst, authoritarian restrictions could spread globally. If Research In Motion, the company that makes the Blackberry, decides to restore service in the UAE by giving censors access to encrypted communications sent within the country, other countries may request and receive the same privilege. This would lead to less freedom for people around the world.

Such evil corporate compromises are most common in China, where companies are so excited to be in on the action that business ethics quickly fall by the wayside. Google ignored its "don't be evil" motto for years as it censored its search results on behalf of the Chinese government. And Yahoo turned over a dissident's identity to Chinese authorities, landing him in jail for a decade.3

As the clear leader in consumer web services, Google's more recent refusal to cooperate with China's censors is quite welcome. However, this refusal to cooperate creates a business opportunity for less ethical companies who are willing to play ball with China and the UAE. "Want a global service that works everywhere, even in China and Dubai? Sign up with InformantCo's iMail today! InformantCo -- we put the ‘dis' in dissident." In a worst-case scenario, such hypothetical services could gain a competitive edge and push out more ethical players, for force them to give up their principled stances.

The best possible outcome is that countries like China and the UAE will soon come to their senses and join the West by abandoning internet repression. The longer this takes to happen, the more time there will be for insidious internet restrictions to creep around the globe.

Related Web Columns:

Mr. Hu, Tear Down This Firewall, January 26, 2010

Good Corp, Bad Cop?, March 4, 2008

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


1. The Mercury News, Google Says It May Have Overestimated Blockage of Services in China, July 29, 2010

2. The New York Times, BlackBerry Maker Resists Governments' Pressure, August 3, 2010

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