Tweets of Freedom
By Emily Parker
Originally published in Project Syndicate, February 24, 2010
Google has been widely celebrated for its loud refusal to continue censoring its search results in China. It is still unclear whether Google will continue to operate in China, but in any event we are not about to see much change in China's Internet policy. More likely, all this "foreign meddling" will merely cause the Chinese government to dig in its heels.
Even if Google does ultimately leave China, the game is not over. Western companies can promote Internet freedom from the outside, by providing useful technology as well as the keys to access it. Call this "Twitter diplomacy."
Twitter is largely blocked by China's "great firewall" (GFW), which prevents Chinese people from accessing certain sites. Yet Twitter has an almost religious following among tech-savvy Chinese, whose determination to use the service outstrips authorities’ efforts to block access to it.
These "netizens" surmount the firewall by way of proxy servers or virtual private networks (VPNs) that allow them to browse the Web as if they were outside of China. Earlier this month, Chinese twitterati helped get the GFW onto the list of Twitter's top ten "trending topics" (or most tweeted terms)—an impressive feat given that Twitter is supposed to be inaccessible in China.
Twitter, which lets people send bite-size messages to large groups, allows Chinese to quickly disseminate urgent news or even uncomfortable facts. "Twitter can create a faster information flow than any official agency," says Michael Anti, a journalist in Beijing who has long been at the forefront of the Chinese Internet movement. "That means people would get information faster than the government. That's a real crisis for Communists."
Twitter also helps protect individual citizens. Blogger Peter Guo claims that Twitter got him out of jail. He says that he was arrested after spreading word about a crime that allegedly involved local officials. He tweeted an SOS via his mobile phone after he was arrested last July, and his case quickly attracted both domestic and international attention, which helped secure his release a little over two weeks later.
So just imagine if Twitter were available to the larger Chinese population. The problem is that many Chinese still lack the simple tools that would enable them to get past the GFW.
When I asked Guo how the outside world could make Twitter more accessible in China, he replied that we could help by "providing affordable VPN service." Foreign companies, he added, could make available more secure browsers that would help "Chinese people to circumvent the GFW."
Government can also play a role in empowering Chinese netizens. Jonathan Zittrain, Co-Director of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has suggested that the United States, for example, could start with some basic funding for the kind of "science and technology innovation that gave us the Internet to begin with." This could include potential "game changers" in China such as ad hoc mesh networking, which allows users to communicate with one another by hopping from one device to the next without an Internet service provider in the middle.
But, given the political sensitivities of foreign pressure on China, it is unclear how far Western governments will be able to go. That is where companies like Twitter come in.
Even if Twitter's co-founders did not necessarily develop it to be a tool of democratization, that is precisely what it has become. In April 2009, young people in Moldova used Twitter to organize protests against their government. Two months later, Twitter famously helped Iranians assemble and share information during their election protests.
Now, we are beginning to see a similar phenomenon in China. In November, citizen protests against the construction of an incinerator in Guangzhou became a widely Tweeted event. Referring to the role that Twitter played in protests in Iran and Moldova, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey told me, "These are all events and movements that people chose to make happen, and Twitter was a tool that happened to be there to make it more easy."
Twitter may now be taking more aggressive steps to promote Internet freedom abroad. Co-founder and CEO Evan Williams recently suggested that software developers were working on technology to evade government barriers, though he did not give specific details.
Google's adamant stance on Chinese censorship may have been well intentioned. The problem is that the standoff has now taken on the tone of a state-to-state confrontation. China, apparently still reeling from a "century of humiliation" at the hands of outsiders, will not be pushed around by America. This view is not limited to the Chinese government. Right now, many netizens are applauding Google's move. But if they begin to perceive Google as a pawn of the US government, this sentiment could turn on a dime.
Ultimately the Chinese Internet cat-and-mouse game will be won with innovation, not political pressure. The world should continue to flood the Chinese market, and those of other countries that restrict freedom of expression, with cutting-edge technology. Of course, censors will often be just one step behind, filtering information and shutting down sites. But Chinese netizens are remarkably adept at using the limited tools available to them. In doing so, they are transforming their country in a slow but irreversible way.
Emily Parker is the Arthur Ross Fellow at the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. This commentary was originally published with Project Syndicate © 2010 (www.project-syndicate.org).