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U.S. website blackout draws praise in China

Internet users in China speak admiringly of the public rebellion against anti-piracy bills in Congress. Such a display would be nearly impossible in China.

January 20, 2012|By David Pierson, Los Angeles Times
  • Protesters demonstrate against U.S. online piracy legislation outside the offices of Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in New York. In China, the communist regime has long exercised control over the Web, forcing Internet firms to censor content.
Protesters demonstrate against U.S. online piracy legislation outside… (Mario Tama, Getty Images )

Reporting from Beijing —  

Chinese Internet users are applauding the U.S. tech industry's Web "strike" this week to protest federal anti-piracy bills that would give Uncle Sam greater control of cyberspace.

As websites including Wikipedia shut down and millions of Americans complained to lawmakers about the potential for government censorship, Chinese netizens spoke admiringly of the public rebellion. Such a display in China would be nearly impossible right now, given Beijing's tight grip on citizens' online activities.

"Only an American company could protest the way Wikipedia or Google has to the government," said Zhao Jing, a closely followed blogger in Beijing who uses the pen name Michael Anti. "A Chinese company would never get away with that."

China'scommunist regime has long exercised control over the Web, forcing Internet firms to censor content that authorities deem offensive or critical of their legitimacy.

Google shut down many functions of its mainland China operation after Chinese hackers in 2009 allegedly stole some of the company's computer code and attempted to penetrate activists' Gmail accounts. (The Chinese government denied involvement.) China has also blocked a number of foreign sites including Twitter and Facebook that could be used to mobilize dissent.

Regulation has gotten even tighter in the wake of the "Arab Spring" uprisings that rocked authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. Chinese authorities recently announced new rules requiring users of Twitter-like microblog services to register their accounts under their real names. They've jailed a number of online activists over the last year and have vowed to punish others who spread "harmful information" online, a euphemism for any challenge to the state's authority.

U.S. supporters of the anti-piracy bills in Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), say the legislation is needed to crack down on counterfeiters. Foreign websites that traffic in pirated movies, music and counterfeit goods cost Hollywood and other U.S. content creators billions annually. Cries of Big Brother and censorship from tech opponents are overblown, they said.

But Chinese bloggers appear to be siding with Silicon Valley.

That's because Chinese netizens have found out the hard way that censorship is a slippery slope, said Wen Yunchao, a prominent blogger and outspoken government critic who left mainland China recently for Hong Kong. He said China's so-called Great Firewall, which authorities use to block websites and filter content, was initially billed by Beijing as a way to stop piracy and pornography.

"Now it's being abused and extended to thousands of websites," Wen said.

At least the proposed anti-piracy legislation is being debated openly in the U.S., Wen said. In contrast, China's government Internet watchdogs operate largely in secret. Lack of transparency means Internet companies and users are never quite sure what content is taboo, why or who is calling the shots.

"In China, all the government decisions are done in a dark box," Wen said. "No one knows what's going on. There's never any legal reason cited. If these laws are passed in the U.S., every step of the way it will be more transparent. People can challenge it. There's no comparison when it comes to censorship in China and in the U.S."

Others aren't so sure.

"Now the U.S. government is copying us and starting to build their own firewall," one microblogger wrote of the proposed anti-piracy legislation.

Incidentally, China's 513million Web users have relatively free access to the very sites targeted by PIPA and SOPA. Those include file-sharing sites such as Extratorrent.com and sellers of counterfeit goods such as Taobao.

"The Chinese Great Firewall is not targeting pirated material," said Jason Ng, a popular blogger in Beijing who has 29,000 Twitter followers. "Look at the Chinese Internet space and it's all about pirated movies, TV and porn. Everyone just wants to enjoy and be entertained. If the government cut all that off, they'd have a serious problem on their hands."

david.pierson@latimes.com

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