Good Policy Makes Sense at Home and Abroad
June 13, 2006
Filed under International
Last week, while China was busy blocking and then unblocking Google.com, in an apparent effort to tamp down on dissent during the anniversary of the Tiananmen square massacre, and Sergei Brin was publicly musing about China's censorship laws, I found myself debating Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute on the balance between liberty and democracy before a group of Chinese exchange students at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. The debate was predicable, but the audience -- graduate students from a variety of disciplines studying in universities all over the country -- was not. They were unafraid to bluntly challenge the post 9-11 policies of their host country or to discuss the need for greater freedom and political reform in their own country. And unlike most U.S. policymakers, they understood the connection between the two. It the "China century" is going to be about political reform and human rights as well as growing economic dominance, Daniel and I agreed on one thing: this was the generation poised to make it happen. What is less clear to me is whether US policymakers -- at least with respect to the goal of an open and unfettered Internet in China -- will help or hinder that effort. The signs are not encouraging. On Friday, a federal court in Washington upheld a decision to allow the FBI and telecom regulators to dictate design mandates on the Internet in order to facilitate government wiretapping, threatening the privacy rights of Americans and the ability of innovators to technologists to innovate. (Jim Dempsey's post from Friday discusses this in detail). Last month the Attorney General sent a bill up to Congress that would require government warning labels on commercial websites that contain sexually explicit material (a provision that reach much more than adult porn sites), and the DOJ is now actively considering legislation to require massive data retention by ISPs, creating large databases of information that track our personal contacts and relationships. All of this coupled with the revelation that the NSA has acquired the phone calling records of Americans, apparently without legal process, cannot but help strengthen China's hand or bolster to its oft stated view that it is not doing "anything different" with respect to the Internet than the United States. The United States is not China. We still have rule of law and a modicum of due process on the Internet and most importantly, we have political freedom and free speech. But if we are going to demand that American Internet and technology companies develop a code of conduct to guide their behavior abroad to aid China's next generation of leaders in actively embracing political freedom, we need to stop pretending there is a "Chinese wall" between our actions at home and the impact abroad.