Google’s recent whitepaper on censorship as a trade barrier has brought renewed attention to the global economic impact of policies that curtail the free flow of information, especially those policies that have emanated from the Chinese government. But reports that describe China’s censorship regime have failed to mention an important – and often ignored – gear in China’s machine of information control, one that has huge implications for governments, business, and academics alike and that strikes at the heart of our notion of “free flows of information”: For many university students in China, information from abroad is, quite literally, not free.
In 2003, the China Education and Research Network (CERNET), through which all Chinese universities connect to the Internet, instituted a data fee for access to internationally hosted websites. According to the regulation, the fee was implemented to promote the growth of domestic web content. “In order to encourage domestic communications,” the document reads in Chinese, “a fee for international data downloads will be instituted while domestic data downloads will be free.”
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