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Internet giants against Chinese cyberdissidents: the lessons for Ukraine

Viktor Kaspruk
The author describes the degree to which the Internet giants have been abetting the Chinese regime in censoring Chinese cyberspace, and asks whether in Ukraine we should feel free of such encroachments of democratic freedom

China was the first country to begin introducing a system of centralized censorship in cyberspace. “Chinese whiz kids”, on instructions from the Party, developed programs which blocked access to Internet users in their country of Taiwan websites or other Diaspora Chinese-language newspapers which contained criticism of the communist regime. However, as we know, if the people have been forced to endure certain restrictions on information, then the authorities will already be prepared to impose new, more severe, ideological actions.

In China today there are already approximately 100 million Internet users and their number is steadily rising. The communist regime is clearly in no way ready to accept that any normal user of the common cyberspace should be able to “track down” specifically that information which really interests him or her.  However in order to make the “clamps” on the Internet effective, you need to enlist the support and assistance of the main Internet giants.

However the most incredible thing here is that somehow the communists succeeded in getting this support. It is unclear what the dividends offered were, but the leaders of the world cyber-industry Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Cisco, Nortel, Sun and Websense  have “sold their soul” and agreed to collaborate with Peking in order for the latter to impose censorship.  The first three giants listed have, for example, agreed to systematically block access to any site on the Internet where “seditious” words appear – words like “democracy”, “freedom”, “human rights”, “independence of Taiwan” or “demonstrations”.

If the average Chinese Internet user unaware of the new information rules in China which were introduced after the signing of a contract last month with the state enterprise Shanghai Alliance, attempts to type any of the above-mentioned “seditious” words on western search engines, he or she will come up against unexpected responses. The user will be politely informed by the virtual censor that “this article may not contain words which are prohibited. Please use other terms”.

Under such total control, owners of personal websites will no longer be able to express their political concerns. However this is by no means all.  The authorities have bound all website owners by 30 June 2006 to receive official registration or else be closed. 75% of users have already complied with this ruling. It is manifestly obvious that such actions would be absolute inconceivable in a state which guaranteed its citizens basic democratic liberties.

In addition, Yahoo has agreed to block any information which Peking deems to be pernicious.  Similarly Google has decided not to include for Chinese users seeking information pages which the authorities have classified as seditious.

The communist regime tries to justify its demands by the need to control information which could, they allege, present a threat to the security of the country.  The country’s leaders assert that users of the Internet, which has become popular on a mass scale in the country, obtain information containing sex, violence, superstitions and other harmful information which poisons society.

The attempts by the Chinese authorities to limit and measure out information for its citizens have been propped up by helpers from Cisco, Nortel, Sun і Websense who, without hesitation, expressed the will to sell those “fighting against information” with the necessary technology for restricting the information flow, required for the offensive on cyberdissidents.

Peking’s desire for absolute control over the information which Chinese people receive appears not so much filled with pathos, as comical. What does, however, stagger is that for the sake of financial benefit, western Internet giants are prepared to forget about any principles, not of course to mention such “trivial” details like human rights.

In this context one is reminded of yet another such “trivial detail” which cannot leave the Ukrainian public indifferent. For some reason, after the victory of the Orange Revolution, the new democratic regime was unable to remember (and, accordingly, to revoke) the dubious decision of the Kuchma regime on state monitoring of the Ukrainian Internet realm.

And if it didn’t mention it, then perhaps just such a situation in Ukraine entirely suited the authorities?  This question remains for the moment unanswered.  However one does recall that even several years ago ideas were being voiced in Ukraine about registering all Internet users, in a way analogous to existing phonebooks, in which all owners and users of telephones are given.

All the more so that at one time the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) demanded that providers of Internet services bought and installed equipment which would enable the SSU to monitor electronic mail and websites.

It would therefore be interesting to find out how far the Ukrainian security services have got towards controlling information in Ukraine. And whether some representatives or other of the new regime might not experience the dubious urge to move a few steps further in that direction, following the recent Chinese experience.  All the more true as ideas regarding the need to register all Ukrainian websites have already been expressed by certain members of Yushchenko’s team.

If the Ukrainian Internet realm were to really move further towards total monitoring, then the Ukrainian public would have all justification for investigating what grounds such undemocratic actions were being taken, and how such actions could be reconciled with the declarations of the regime regarding their observance of the rights of all Ukrainian citizens.

Meanwhile the issue of control by the Ukrainian authorities over information circulated through the Internet is an excellent test for what the next steps of the “Orange Regime” will be after it consolidates its position and control over society after 2006.

This question is in no way rhetorical, since from preparing, measuring out, concealing and banning information, it is a very easy step, given the relevant will, to more decisive steps against those who show no inclination to think and act in standard ways, and who under no circumstances are prepared to agree to renounce their legitimate right to freely receive and circulate information in cyberspace.

It must be acknowledged that any regime finds it uncomfortable when certain negative (albeit accurate) information is circulated about it. Here too it is necessary to draw a clear line between the desire to impede the dissemination of information which the regime finds inconvenient and the legitimacy and lawfulness of actions aimed at prohibiting information.

Originally published in "Ukrainska Pravda”

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