CHINA’S GREAT FIREWALL, a massive system of Internet filters and blocking, has long had a crack in it. The firewall prevents most users inside China from accessing platforms outside the country, such as Facebook, Google and Netflix, in keeping with China’s desire to censor what can be seen and read. But popular software known as virtual private networks, or VPNs, permit a user inside China to tunnel through the firewall. Now the crack is being gradually cemented up.
A VPN has been particularly useful for foreign firms that come to China and want to link up with corporate networks outside it. Hoping to encourage such investment, China looked the other way for years at the existence of the VPNs, many available from Apple’s App Store in China. Some were easy to use — just tap the button and a user would be on Facebook as if sitting in Los Angeles instead of Beijing. The VPNs are popular among millions of young people, as well as journalists and others.
China has been heading toward restricting them for some time, but now it is cracking down in earnest with a new cybersecurity law that carries criminal penalties. According to a BBC report, Apple informed more than 60 VPNs that they were being removed from the App Store in China on grounds that they were not licensed, although some others remain. Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, said last week “we would obviously rather not remove the apps” but Apple will “follow the law wherever we do business.” Likewise, a Chinese company that operates Amazon’s cloud-computing business in China has sent a notice reminding customers to comply with local laws and cease using software such as VPNs that could pierce the Great Firewall. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Apple, Amazon and other Western technology pioneers can have a positive influence on China, but the laws they obey can also become tools of censorship. Mr. Cook said this week that Apple has been “engaging” with China over this “even when we disagree.” But there is no evidence that China’s leaders are prepared to loosen the reins of control. The trend is running the other way.
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One of the great political writers of our time offers a manifesto for global free speech in the digital age
Never in human history was there such a chance for freedom of expression. If we have Internet access, any one of us can publish almost anything we like and potentially reach an audience of millions. Never was there a time when the evils of unlimited speech flowed so easily across frontiers: violent intimidation, gross violations of privacy, tidal waves of abuse. A pastor burns a Koran in Florida and UN officials die in Afghanistan.
Drawing on a lifetime of writing about dictatorships and dissidents, Timothy Garton Ash argues that in this connected world that he calls cosmopolis, the way to combine freedom and diversity is to have more but also better free speech. Across all cultural divides we must strive to agree on how we disagree. He draws on a thirteen-language global online project—freespeechdebate.com—conducted out of Oxford University and devoted to doing just that. With vivid examples, from his personal experience of China’s Orwellian censorship apparatus to the controversy around Charlie Hebdo to a very English court case involving food writer Nigella Lawson, he proposes a framework for civilized conflict in a world where we are all becoming neighbors.
Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World by Timothy Garton Ash – review by
Freedom is worthless if it is not lived. However important rights are in a constitutional democracy, they will wither unless you use them. From John Milton’s polemics against the Presbyterian attempts to enforce Calvinist censorship on the England of the 1640s, via John Stuart Mill’s rebellion against the conformism of the Victorians, to Salman Rushdie’s argument with the Islamists, the urge to defend and expand freedom of speech has been created by the threats of its enemies
What applies to great writers applies to everyone else. No one thinks hard about freedom of speech until they are forced to. In Timothy Garton Ash’s case, the pressure came from within.
When Ayaan Hirsi Ali fled to Holland from Africa she might have expected the support of European liberals. Here was a black feminist arguing against female genital mutilation and the God-sanctioned religious oppression of women. How many more “progressive” boxes did she need to tick?