Rebecca MacKinnon on the relationship between internet freedom and democratization in China

Rebecca MacKinnon is Visiting Fellow at Princeton's Center for Information Technology.

Rebecca's presentation explored two key arguments: first, that China should challenge our assumptions about the inherent relationship between the internet and democratization; and second that existing democracies are currently legislating in ways that may jeopardize the empowering potential of the internet.

The emergence of the internet in China has enabled many people to engage in a more varied public discourse than ever before. The government has also begun to actively engage with its Netizens; for example, Wen Jiabao recently instigated an annual live web chat in which he takes questions on a wide range of social and political issues.

But we should not equate this more open discourse with a move towards democracy, for at least two reasons:

The government still largely controls the conversation: While Wen Jiabao may have been happy to engage in online debate, negative commentary by a prominent blogger (pointing out that this engagement is meaningless the absence of political structures) was swiftly removed. By putting the onus on providers such as blog platforms, China is successfully keeping more controversial content from ever appearing online. Attempts to openly criticize the government or to politically organize are still regularly met with arrest and imprisonment. And the government has adopted a much more sophisticated strategy for media coverage in recent years. Recognizing that press blackouts on controversial events are no longer viable in the age of the camera phone, it now allows these to be reported, saturating the public with its approved version of events, whilst squeezing out individual accounts by citizens.

The government is using the internet to argue that does not need democratic structures to engage its people: Far from signally the death of the Communist Party (as Rebecca and her CNN colleagues had predicted in the 90s), the internet may actually be prolonging its survival because it allows the regime to claim it can engage with its people without political structures. Many educated people in China buy into the idea that they can now be heard, and without a commitment to invest time and resources in circumventing censorship, they remain unaware of some of the most serious abuses. The internet may certainly serve a role in promoting deliberation, but China demonstrates that this deliberation can exist in an authoritarian context.

Meanwhile, in existing democracies, efforts to solve issues related to security and protection are causing governments to legislate in ways that move them closer to illiberal models of surveillance and censorship. In South Korea, the government has instigated a law requiring users of certain sites to create accounts that include their national ID number. This makes it extremely easy for authorities to identify authors who previously could have remained anonymous, and has already led to several arrests. In the UK, the Digital Economy Bill, aimed at preventing copyright infringements, will force ISPs to monitor customers' use of their networks and report suspicious activity to copyright groups. Concerns for child safety online have recently led some UK campaign groups to lend support to China's idea to pre-install all new PCs with censorship software.  These examples highlight the need for a renewed debate about the right balance between security and liberty online. As we come to rely on the internet more and more for understanding the world around us, governments need to think holistically about how their policies will shape its use and impact.