Internet: Dictator's Tool

One of the most enduring assumptions about the Internet is that its sheer scale promotes liberty. But as everyone in Internet commerce knows, the Internet is also the most measurable medium. Sites like Spamcop can trace emails to their source, even if the sender tries to disguise it. Hundreds of people have been fired from private and government jobs already for visiting forbidden sites–the logs were the final proof.

So it’s not yet clear that the Internet favors the free over the knave. The time has come for an experiment to test the theory. China has begun engaging in one.

China has been engaged in its experiment since April, after 10,000 members of a rather benign exercise-and-meditation sect called Falun Gong surrounded government offices in Beijing. The sect simply wanted recognition as a religion. The fact the protest was organized under their noses (using the Internet) frightened China’s leaders.

A limited number of state licensed Internet Service Providers provide a convenient choke point for police. Monitors have been installed at all of them to trace email traffic. One man, Lin Hai, was even sentenced to two years in prison for passing email addresses to an American email list. (This happened months before the latest crackdown began.) Without the burden of such “local ordinances” as the U.S. Bill of Rights, Chinese police have also been free to hack foreign web sites.

With an unlimited budget and a web population that stood at just 1.2 million at the end of last year, Chinese police have found themselves in tyrant heaven. Just in the last month, the creation and sharing of databases has resulted in 15,000 arrests, and what works for criminals will surely work for dissidents, won’t it?

The government has even taken a page from the Iranian playbook. When Interpol refused to execute an arrest warrant on Falun Gong’s leader, former soldier (and current New York resident) Li Hongzhi, the regime simply put a price on his head, as with Salman Rushdie.

The government’s use of technology to control dissent is detailed in Dacankao, or VIP Reference (the letter Lin Hai sent those addresses to), and you can join that discussion from this link. Unfortunately, I couldn’t reach that site’s home page due to what its host, Go Network, called a “system problem.”

As I said at the outset, the experiment is ongoing. Opponents of the Chinese regime are scattered throughout the Internet, not just in obvious places like Hong Kong and Taiwan but in Canada, the U.S., the UK and elsewhere. While Falun Gong brought this cyber war to the world’s attention, it has really been going on for some time, and will continue, perhaps indefinitely. Those who see the Internet as a liberating force have a dog in this fight and right now, frankly, the fight isn’t going well.

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