Policing the Internet

Before Beginning: I’d like to bring your attention to my newest blog. It’s called, simply, Understanding. You can find it at www.gmoreau.com. You will find the same style of writing and kaleidoscopic perspective but the topics will be broader and the posts will be far shorter. (500 words max) At the table of food for thought, more of a snack than a meal.

Regarding this blog, Understanding China, I will continue to maintain it for now.

Apple recently came under fire for removing VPN apps that had not been certified by the government from its Chinese app store. That unleashed a torrent of complaints from privacy watchdogs and China critics in general.

Most Americans are unfamiliar with VPN’s, the techno-speak for virtual private networks that conceal your IP address from the websites you visit and allow users to bypass government firewalls. Most large companies use them to protect their internal networks.

In China, the Great Firewall, as it’s commonly referred to, prevents access to all pornography and Western social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Russia’s Red Web performs a similar function and within the last year has blocked access to LinkedIn, the popular social website for business professionals.

China and Russia are far from alone. Saudi Arabia also has firewalls that prevent its 32 million citizens from accessing pornography or other content that the government has deemed to be inappropriate. Many countries, moreover, block website service providers in order to protect local telecoms or promote local social media. The latter censorship obviously has economic and tax revenue implications, but many foreign governments argue a national security interest as well. They don’t want their social media and the data it thrives on to be controlled by servers sitting outside the country.

Thailand bans YouTube, as does Turkey. Both Singapore and South Korea, two democracies who are staunch US allies, block Skype and other VOIP (voice over Internet providers). Belize blocks Vonage, Skype, Google Talk, and MSN Messenger. Even one of the major ISP’s and largest landline telecom in Mexico, Telmex, of Carlos Slim fame, reportedly makes it difficult to access Vonage and Skype.

A VPN can generally get you around government filters but, like any service provider, there are levels of quality and ability. And it’s a bit of a cat and mouse game as the VPN techies and government censors chase each other around the Internet.

I know because I used a private VPN when I lived in China, mainly to access blocked US news sites like the New York Times. While I tended to use the BBC and China’s own English-language CCTV for most of my news, I did crave a Maureen Dowd column from time to time.

I also know that the Chinese government was fully aware of the fact that I used a VPN. You assume the government knows pretty much everything there, although I sincerely doubt it knows half as much about its citizens as the US government knows about its own. In places like China and Russia, you see, people assume there is no privacy, so they take precautions. Most of my American neighbors, on the other hand, believe their communication is private and appear to take few precautions as a result. Perhaps that is why stolen identities are so easy to come by here. Another example of life’s great dichotomies—with individual liberty comes the potential for even greater abuse of those liberties.

The real irony here is just how upset Americans are about Apple’s compliance with Chinese law. As Apple’s Tim Cook has noted, Apple is merely following the law, as it does in every country it does business in. More than anything else I think the reaction to Apple’s policy is uniquely American—and another dichotomy. We pride ourselves on being the freest society on the planet. We are, however, a nation of rule followers. We can, in fact, be a bit retentive about it at times.

If someone violates a queue in the US, consciously or not, tempers will surely flair. And while our entertainment industry deals in the currency of raunchy sexuality most of the time, Americans are considered, on the whole, to be a bit prudish. We don’t touch much. While holding hands with friends and colleagues in public is common throughout most of the Western world, it is still relatively uncommon here outside of amorous relationships. When President Clinton was revealed to have channeled Freud with a young White House intern, similarly, many Europeans wondered what all the fuss was about.

The Chinese are much more like the French than the Americans where rules are involved. Queues are for the meek and sexually repressed; traffic signals are there to mark when best to step on the accelerator.

When my wife, daughters, and I visited a new treetop adventure park here in the US recently, we were given extensive instruction in how to use the “smart” carabiners on the harnesses provided, which electronically force you to keep one safety line attached at all times. When climbing a short rope ladder up to one of the tree stands on the course, nonetheless, my very fit Chinese wife chose not to attach the three security clips on her harness to the security cable provided. There was, in her mind, zero chance she would fall, and even if she did it would be from a modest height that was unlikely to result in serious injury.

My daughters, of course, quickly looked to me to put things right in the universe. While I privately lamented the contemporary American unwillingness to accept any and all risk in life, I did oblige and quietly explained to my wife that they would ask us to leave if she didn’t follow their safety protocol. “This is Mei Guo (America),” I noted. She got it.

That’s relevant here because it provides some context to the Chinese government’s new VPN regulation and Apple’s response to it. “Cracking down” is a relative term to most citizens and their governments. Being the American rule follower that I am, I refused to use a VPN during my first six months or so in China, out of concern that it would violate already existing restrictions on their use. It was members of the foreign diplomatic corps, however, who convinced me it was okay. The government doesn’t really care if you use a VPN for non-political reasons, they noted. It just wants to “slow people down” in case they are planning to use a VPN to incite civil or political unrest.

I became convinced when I upgraded the Internet connection in my home to broadband. I had a wireless network set up in my home, of course, and when the technician from the state-owned Internet service provider came to install the new connection he noted that it was against the law for him to provide such a connection to a personal network of more than one computer.

After he left I called the young Chinese guy I had used to set up the network to seek his advice and he instructed me to go to the router and tell him what I saw. “It is as you left it,” I noted, “except that the cable that the technician installed is lying next to it.” “As I suspected,” he said. “Plug that cable into the receptacle that it is closest to it on the router.”

Voila, I had broadband on my wireless network. The technician had followed the letter of the law but knew that I would use the network, decided that my family was probably not out to plot anything sinister, and courteously made it easy for me. And, no, I paid him nothing.

The point being that I believe that Western privacy advocates are making much ado about nothing here. As we Westerners are prone to do, they are failing to consider context. In the Western context, most decisions are binary—the choices are either/or. This is a false dilemma, however, since reality generally exists in an “and/but” context. Most choices come in a wide array of shades. This one is no exception.

I am not in China at the moment, so I don’t pretend to know what is actually happening on the ground. I am fairly confident, however, that the Chinese government is not so much changing the rules as it is just updating its policy to slow down the rapid proliferation of VPNs in light of new technology and new entrants to the field.

I am not sure I know anyone other than an American, however, who would go to the Apple store to download a VPN app. That’s just a little too obvious to liberty realists.

Apple is smart to comply with the new regulation. It has a huge business in China and wants to stay on the right side of its regulations. Don’t fret for Maureen Dowd’s Chinese fans, however. I’m sure they can still get their fix.

Please remember to check out my new blog at www.gmoreau.com

Contact: You can reach the author directly at gary@gmoreau.com

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