Freedom and the Internet

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Governments can have a major effect on the way its citizens use the internet. China is notorious for its pervasive legislation on internet censorship, so much so that its system has been popularly dubbed the ‘Great Firewall of China’. This system blocks foreign websites including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and many other online platforms popular in the West. In addition to the websites themselves, a large amount of online content is blocked every day by the Chinese government, ranging from sensitive material, such as pornography, to articles stating political opinions. According to the watchdog organization, Freedom House, China was ranked the worst nation for promoting Internet freedoms between 2015 and 2016. This lack of internet freedom in China serves as an important reminder to Westerners of how important it is to monitor any efforts to curb or control our own freedoms — whether perpetrated by governments or companies.

In China, internet censorship has greatly affected how its citizens communicate. With the rise of social networks and mass communication, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Chinese government to censor certain websites and online services. Chinese dissidents have found ways to gain access to banned social networks and use alternative forms of communication. For instance, some people use the app “FireChat” that utilizes Bluetooth and cell radio technology to make calls as opposed to more traceable mediums, such as cell service or the internet. Others own Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to send their IP addresses to other countries. This way, they can gain access to location-locked services and banned websites, without being tracked by their government.

Many Chinese citizens use these services because they are afraid of having their government cut off their Internet access or facing criminal repercussions. In 2014, nearly two dozen people across mainland China were detained for sharing articles and photos sympathizing with Chinese protesters. One of the most famous examples of this was in response to the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution”. Protesters sat in the streets with umbrellas to protect themselves from police tear gas in protest of new electoral reforms in Hong Kong. Those who were not detained, reported being threatened with arrest by authorities if they continued to publicize news of the protest. In recent years, there have even been instances of government-sponsored phishing — gaining online information through deceitful advertisements and malicious website links. These surveillance tactics contribute to the fear many Chinese citizens feel under the watchful eye of their government.

China’s internet censorship also has controversial economic ramifications. Since China has blocked access to many foreign websites, most Chinese citizens are limited to the services deemed appropriate by their government. This creates a self-insulating economy; without a strong presence of rivaling international businesses, Chinese tech companies such as Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba have become monopolies in China. As the world’s biggest retail marketer, with over 695 million internet users as of December 2016, these companies have been manipulating China’s large online market and strict Internet regulations for their own profit.

Many Westerners are tempted to see this as a ‘Chinese’ problem but should not become complacent whenthey consider China’s current situation. In Canada, there has been much controversy over the past few years surrounding the Anti-Terrorism Act, commonly referred to as Bill C-51, which was passed in 2015. This legislation further constrains the promotion of terrorism and “expands information sharing among federal government institutions that have jurisdiction or responsibilities concerning national security threats”. This authorization of increased government surveillance has raised privacy concerns. In the 2016-2017 annual report to parliament, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada addressed the risks the bill presents:

 

Our submission noted that Bill C-51 put the privacy of ordinary Canadians at risk with the dramatic expansion of the scale and scope of government information sharing — a problem exacerbated by seriously deficient privacy protections.

 

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has created much controversy concerning its vote to repeal existing net neutrality legislation. Net neutrality laws mandate that internet service providers (ISPs) not charge users differently based on their metadata (platform, content, location, etc.). If these laws are repealed, ISPs may pose a threat to the freedoms of many internet users and will encourage other nations to adopt similar practices.

The mutual lack of trust between the Chinese government and its citizens is a result of the country’s widespread internet censorship and surveillance. These practices limit its citizens’ privacy and freedom of speech and makes outside communication more challenging. The internet is a place where ideas are shared and connections are made. For the Chinese government to limit, track, and control its nation’s access to this valuable resource stifles the freedom of its citizens. While Westerners continue to enjoy more online freedom than their Chinese counterparts, they must continue to guard these freedoms diligently from powerful tyrannical forces.