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Disparate Internet Landscapes, Each Under Pressure (Part I of II)

· Policy,Governance,Internet

{{{Samuel Curtis}}}

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has left many of China's public spaces unrecognizable. Bustling city streets have gone quiet. Trains and planes, if still operating, are running far below capacity. Businesses and schools (including my own university) have closed their doors for an indefinite amount of time. Health and safety officials stand guard at entrances and exits of many public buildings and apartment complexes waiting to take temperatures. In some places, residents are limited in the number of times they are permitted to leave their homes, and are expected to do so only to pick up groceries and return with haste.

Beyond the transformation apparent in physical spaces, the virus outbreak has also triggered remarkable disruptions in China's digital spaces. In mid-January, as the crisis set in, many users took to social media to disseminate reports and share recommended hygiene practices. Between late January and early February, in particular, Chinese netizens witnessed an uncharacteristic respite from the usual level of censorship, during which many users took to criticizing local authorities for their mismanagement of the public health crisis. On February 7th, the death of doctor Li Wenliang, who had been admonished by authorities for “making false comments on the internet” when he tried to sound the alarm on the outbreak, triggered an outburst of mourning and dissent on Chinese social media platforms. In recent days, however, the government has reverted to its standard rigidity by permanently closing numerous WeChat accounts, scrubbing pages of disparaging comments, and reprimanding social media companies that had allowed unfettered speech on their platforms. This oscillatory yet dominating behavior has left many, particularly Western spectators, perplexed as to how the government manages to exert control over the information on its internet landscape.

Indeed, behind the Great Firewall, the internet on China's mainland is much different from what most Westerners are accustomed to. In China, most U.S.-based search engines, social media platforms, and messaging apps are inaccessible, including Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Netflix, and WhatsApp. In 2019, a U.S.-based and government-funded NGO, Freedom House, gave China a score of 10 out of 100 on its index of internet freedom in its annual report, Freedom on the Net—the lowest score of the 65 countries assessed. (In comparison, the U.S. received a score of 77 out of 100, ranking 6th.) The report evaluates countries based on their“obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.”China was given its low score due to reported large-scale content removals, website closures, social media account deletions, increasing self-censorship, and the deployment of handheld data-extraction devices in fraught territories.

Deng Xiaopeng, the paramount leader of China from 1978 to 1992, was fond of the aphorism “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in” as it related to the ideological threats the Communist Party would face as it transitioned to a socialist market economy in the 1980s and '90s. Heeding his wisdom, the Chinese government devised an effective ideological fly trap, through a series of comprehensive legislative measures in the late 1990s and early 2000s, during its internet's early years.

The first regulation1 passed in 1994, granted the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) the authority to "supervise, inspect and guide the security protection work … investigate and prosecute illegal criminal cases … [and] perform other supervising duties" within the country's internet infrastructure. In 1996, the central government passed a bill2 requiring that all internet service providers (ISPs) be licensed, and that internet traffic goes through one of several state-owned telecommunications networks; in other words, no individual or entity was permitted to establish a direct connection themselves. Then, in 1997, the MPS passed sweeping regulation3 forbidding the creation, replication, retrieval, or transmission of information on the internet that may "incite to overthrow the government or the socialist system; incite division of the country, harming national unification, fabricate or distort the truth, spread rumors, or destroy the order of society." These three regulations served as the legal scaffolding for the government's cyber governance, by demarcating the "borders" of its internet, and then endowing its agencies with the authority to exert control over users and the content they create or share. Year after year, as China's market and influence expanded to new parts of the world, the country's cyber laws, policies, and security systems evolved to tampen emergent threats in cyberspace. Today, their cyber security and censorship mechanisms are more advanced and extensive than ever.

In contrast, the United States is quickly learning of the challenges of a liberal approach to internet censorship, namely, the proliferation of disinformation, both by foreign adversaries and domestic actors. Robert Mueller's Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election expounded Russia's extensive "disinformation campaign” designed to steer conversations on social media, publish fictitious advertisements, stage political rallies on U.S. soil, and "sow discord in the U.S. political system." In a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence briefing in February 2018, former U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats stressed that the U.S. vulnerability to cyber attacks was the country's greatest threat: "Our adversaries … are using cyber and other instruments of power to shape societies and markets, international rules and institutions, and international hotspots to their advantage."

In response, several governmental organs are calling for legislative action, but finding it difficult to muscle legal clout due to existing federal legislation. For example, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act4 provides internet providers and social media sites immunity from liability regarding content that individuals create or share. Furthermore, constitutional freedom of speech provides individuals the liberty to post content that is misleading, denigrating or fictitious. In October of 2019, the state of California passed a bill5 outlawing the distribution of altered audio or visual material of a political candidate, such as the doctored video of Nancy Pelosi that went viral earlier this year, appearing to show her slurring her words. However, due to existing legislation the terms of the bill were constricted: a claimant must demonstrate that the material is not satire or parody, that it was shared with “actual malice” to “injure the candidate's reputation or to deceive a voter into voting for or against the candidate,” and only applies to materials made within 60 days of an election.

When the coronavirus outbreak subsides, and life returns to relative normalcy in China, it will be more clear whether the government's response has been effective—where the blame lies, and to what extent there is faith that the next emergent threat will be dealt with the appropriate amount of discernment and transparency. Numerous efforts were made to mitigate public dissent as it swelled up—local and provincial officials were purged, the officials that admonished Dr. Li Wenliang whistle-blowing statements officially rebuked, and one Chinese Supreme Court Judge, Tang Xinghua, published a WeChat post in which he encouraged authorities to be lenient towards those that disseminated rumors with benevolent intent. Whether these actions were sufficiently punitive and sustainable to maintain trust in the central government remains to be seen.

In the U.S., as the threat of disinformation in cyberspace is only growing, it seems to me worthwhile to reflect on our government's ability to combat threats to its institutions and governance on its online space. Some pertinent questions arise: Ought our government's agencies to have the ability to censor false information? Wherein should that power lie? Can we ensure that it won't be used for political ends, and how?

To hear more about China's perspective on internet policing, and what more liberal countries such as the United States may glean from its model, I sat down for a conversation with Andy Mok, a non-resident Fellow at the Center for China and Globalization (CCG) and commentator at China Global Television Network (CGTN). Stay tuned for the publication of my interview with Andy Mok next week.


[1] Ordinance for Security Protection of Computer Information Systems (中华人民共和国计算机信息系统安全保护条例),

[2] Temporary Regulation for the Management of Computer Information Network International Connection (中华人民共和国计算机信息网络国际联网管理暂行规定),

[3] Computer Information Network and Internet Security, Protection, and Management Regulations (计算机信息网络国际联网安全保护管理办法),

[4] 47 U.S. Code § 230.Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material, Note: The provision provides immunity for “providers” of “interactive computer services,” which internet service providers (ISPs) and social media platforms claim to be. The statute does make exemptions for federal criminal liability and intellectual property claims.

[5] AB-730 Elections: deceptive audio or visual media,

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