Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Internet and the Chinese Government

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where Professor Greg Austin, Professorial Fellow, EastWest Institute (New York) is speaking on "China and Ethics in the Information Age". Professor Austin is the author of Cyber policy in China (Wiley, 2014) and a talk on the book from the Brookings Institution is also available.

Professor Austin's talk was of interest as I teach computer ethics to ANU students, including those from China. His work is based on the question of how "leadership values" are changed by the Internet. He argues that China's adoption of the Internet accelerated the ethical contest with the USA.
Professor Austin seems to be assuming there are ethical values built into the Internet, these are the same as those held by the US Government and are different to these of the Chinese leadership. It would be useful if he could provide details.

Professor Austin claimed that the Chinese government claimed they could control the Internet in China and maintain communist ideology. But it is not clear what form of "control" he thinks the Chinese government was aiming for. Also he makes no mention of western government's attempts to control the Internet. Censorship does not need to have 100% coverage to be effective, there just has to be enough of a risk of punishment for citizens to censor themselves.
Professor Austin's assumption seems to be that western governments do not want to, or need to, control the Internet, because it has western democratic values built in. However, I was once asked by an Australian Senator in a hearing on Internet censorship why all material to be put on the Internet could not be simply sent to the Australian government for approval before publication. This Senator clearly did not believe in free and open communication. More recently the Australian Parliament passed laws to allow all citizens use of the Internet and telecommunication to be monitored by the security services without requiring a search warrant from a judge.
What might be useful would be an empirical analysis of information flows in different countries, to see how open they are, rather than an analysis of what their governments (and others) say is the case.

Professor Austin claimed there were 130 million unregistered mobile phones in use in China. He suggested these could be used for making anonymous postings to the Internet. However, all mobile phones transmit an identifying serial number. It would be very simple to correlate the number with the pattern of use, to identify the user.

Difficult issues about regulation of the Internet applies to all governments. As an example, three people have been arrested for plotting over the Internet, to carry out an ISIS terrorist attack at Melbourne ANZAC Day commemorations,

Professor Austin made the point that western countries have far more capability to monitor communications than China and so do not need so much overt censorship. He also pointed out that the consequences of on-line dissent is so much less in the west. However, I suggest this is changing. As an example, employees and public servants in Australia are now less free to discuss issues due to social media. Employees of Transfield Services may have their employment terminated for taking part in a discussion of immigration policy on-line or if they join a church or political party which opposes current Australian government policy.

1 comment:

Leigh Blackall said...

Sounds absolutely infuriating! Did anyone in the room raise a hand to make these points? Good on you for doing it here at least.