On August 25th, China’s Internet regulatory body, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CPC), issued new rules to further limit anonymity and false identity on the net. The move immediately launched an outcry of “political censorship” among Western journalists.
But is the hue and cry truly warranted?
There is little question that while the Internet has opened the world to the individual citizen, it has also delivered the citizen to the crook. And, it seems logical, identity thieves and such are probably using false identities. And while it is theoretically true that you could outlaw the thievery without the identity restrictions, that presumes there is at least some overriding benefit to society of anonymity or false identity to begin with.
But what is that overriding benefit?
If you spend any time at all on any part of the web where public comment is possible, you’ll surely find a whole lot of angst. A lot of the people who use the Internet as their personal soapbox are just plain mean, uninformed, or both. And a good many of them, in fact, hide behind their anonymity. They can sit in their pajamas and give voice to all of their pent up self-pity and perceived ill treatment by the world.
And what good does it do? It’s doubtful they feel any better as a result. They certainly aren’t contributing to the kind of informed public dialogue we should be having. And they’re burning up resources in the process that could be put to better use.
The Internet and its infrastructure and administration, of course, do require energy to operate. Most of it, one can safely guess, is of the fossil fuel variety, which, one should point out, these town criers are not personally paying for. The collective net is paying for them through taxes, ISP fees, and the price of goods and services we buy from companies that use the net to promote their business. However we talk about it, the net is a public resource in the same way that utilities and regulated broadcasters are.
The scarcest resource for most Americans, moreover, is time. And we are all forced to waste far too much of it on news feeds like Twitter scrolling through the seemingly endless tweets and comments made by users seeking little more than notoriety. The law of the inverse, which serves to give the individual a voice, works in reverse as well. That voice has to cut through a very big mound of useless and often tasteless clutter.
The regulation-free net, moreover, quite clearly supports the idea of moral equivalency between all voices. And isn’t that what most of us rejected when President Trump commented about events in Charlottesville? I can think of few cases, in fact, where moral equivalency is anything more than a tool of obfuscation.
As political divisions in America widen and become increasingly bitter, it appears that a majority of Americans are beginning to agree. Even companies that profit from Internet access are starting to police themselves. In response to events in Charlottesville, companies like GoDaddy, Paypal, Airbnb, Google, GoFundMe, and Discord all took restrictive positions against hate groups that use or could use their services.
That’s a good thing, I believe, but do we really want to turn the Internet over to private police in the same way we have turned over much of our military to private companies that are essentially accountable to no one? I, for one, don’t know the name of the CEO of any of these companies, with the exception of Google, and would bet my last dollar I could not get even one of them to take my phone call to discuss the issue of censorship.
The government is hardly an unbiased arbiter. Politicians, we know from experience, are often driven by their self-interests. I think we can say, however, just as we say about the US judicial system; it’s better than the alternative.
To many Americans, of course, China represents that dreaded political alternative. The Communist Party of China is in control and will ultimately be the one to determine what can and cannot be on the Internet there. As an Internet user, however, I would rather fight a known agenda than a hidden one, which is, in fact, what’s happening in the US. Big money, in the end, is what drives American regulatory practices today.
As I have noted many times before, moreover, China has a built in self-correction device unavailable here in the US. Many of the critics of China’s recent move to restrict anonymity and false identity have complained that the new regulations are both vague and potentially all encompassing.
But that’s the good news. It’s intentional. Local government officials, for the most part, will be left to interpret the regulations as they see fit given local circumstances. Users and their lawyers cannot hide behind the loopholes inevitable when the translation of regulations is literal, as it commonly is in the US.
Beijing can and will step in at times, of course, and the approach does open the door to rogue and arbitrary behavior. Nonetheless, the average citizen can, without too much effort, meet with local government officials to plead their case. I’ve personally done it many times with a relatively high success rate. I’ve never convinced the local DMV, on the other hand, to compromise even a little on the paperwork required to transfer vehicle ownership, for example.
Local government regulators don’t have that kind of discretion in the US. They are programmed to follow the rules to the letter, even if it’s clear that justice is not being served in any particular case. “I don’t make the rules” is the classic bureaucratic cop out in most liberal democracies.
A rare independently minded government official may decide to stand up for justice in the US from time to time. Because it is not the norm, however, that only serves to undermine faith in the rule of law. It’s far better not to have a regulation than it is to have one that isn’t enforced. In the US at least. That’s not the paradigm. In China it is to be expected and, as a result, works reasonably well.
About the only benefit to protecting anonymity on the net that I can see is the protection it theoretically provides to the noble minded whistle blower. If the issue is important enough, of course, the anonymity is questionable anyway. The NSA or other government agency, we can assume, isn’t really restricted from stripping away anonymity when it wants to.
And, of course, there are other ways to both blow the whistle and to protect whistle-blowers. Honest public transparency, in fact, is one of the most effective ways to provide that protection.
In the end, I believe, Americans will see the need to regulate the Internet in the same way that Elon Musk and others have called upon the government to regulate artificial intelligence. They are really just two facets of the same issue.
In the meantime, I doubt that many Chinese are really worried about the new regulations. Some will be, and they will be given the microphone by Western journalists. Most of the Chinese web, however, will buzz along just as it has.
If hate and misinformation continues to dominate the Western Internet to the degree it does now, we might just have something to learn from the Chinese Communists. God forbid.
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