Is Uncensored Internet Access a Human Right?

Browsing the web for something to write about and finding little, I turned for a moment to that low-hanging fruit, the China op-ed piece. This was, in essence, an act of cowardice on my part. Anyone with a browser and a few minutes can find something written about China that’s easy enough to pull apart, and it’s been a while since the barrel of this blog was pointed at some hapless Western pundit. Luckily, in my search, I ran across something a bit more interesting in the Global Times, a Chinese paper whose editorial pages I have also contributed to from time to time:

In some cases, China’s Internet may even be too open. For example, regulations regarding publishing sensitive or patent-protected corporate information online remain largely non-existent, a clear oversight as China wishes to strengthen its knowledge economy.

As this example shows, there are many good reasons for controlling the Internet. Nearly all countries operate restrictions on obscene or offensive material as well as sensitive corporate data, documents relating to national security, and so on.

Like other governments, Chinese authorities are well within their rights to operate restriction policies according to the national situation.

I am taking this quote out of context. The author’s overall point is that China’s internet policy is far too opaque; probably almost no one would disagree with that. But this argument I’ve excerpted is worth examining for a moment.

First of all, the implication that Chinese internet censorship is acceptable and “normal” just because other countries censor their internet is misleading. Yes, most countries restrict the internet in some ways, but this is still a terrible analogy. “Nearly all countries” do not censor their internet to the extent that China does. China is, indeed, one of the worst countries on the planet when it comes to censorship — and I’d cite evidence to support that claim, but the first five links I found were all — surprise — censored.

More interesting to me is the idea that China has the “right” to restrict its internet as it sees fit (an idea that seems to be growing more popular by day with American lawmakers, interestingly enough). Does China, or any nation, have such a right? Many advocacy groups say no, but few countries have yet bought fully into the idea that uncensored internet access is a human right, least of all China. And, especially in China where the system of internet access is largely the product of State-owned telecommunications companies, it may be unfair to suggest that the government doesn’t have the right to control information that’s being transmitted over wires it (generally speaking) owns.

But China owns the newspapers, too, yet plenty of people would argue that freedom of the press is a fundamental human right. This is not a question that can be answered, of course — and even if we do all agree I find Beijing unlikely to care — but I put the question to you anyway: Does China’s government really have the right to control the internet?

(As a sidenote, check out the most recent Sinica podcast for what is presumably a much more in depth discussion of China’s internet. I say “presumably” because it is loading preposterously slowly here so I have not yet had a chance to listen to all of it.)

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0 thoughts on “Is Uncensored Internet Access a Human Right?”

  1. I think it’s more important to discuss the issue in terms of citizens’ rights instead of the rights of “the state.” It’s not a question of whether or not the state has the right to censor the Internet, it is rather whether or not the state has the *prerogative* to violate the citizens’ *right* to access and consume information. There’s a key semantic difference here, as a right is fundamental and a prerogative requires justification. Even the PRC constitution discusses citizens in terms of the rights they have and governmental organs in terms of their functions, powers, and authority.

    Framing the question in this matter presents different solutions to the situation. Ideally, in a social contract where the citizens have penultimate rights and the state has circumscribed powers, then any state intervention against rights *at least* should have a justification prepared, and a mechanism to approve the justification, for the censorship. China doesn’t meet this standard currently. Internet censorship is unilaterally carried out by the government; the whole terming of the concept as “Net Nanny” in part reflects the arbitrary, willy-nilly nature of the censorship. “International” observers, bloggers, and activists should probably be directing their efforts, at this point, in showing Chinese officials the advantages, both for themselves and for the public, of initiating a transparent judicial review process of censorship decisions. Of course, there are problems with this. The judiciary is not independent and there are already initiatives like the “Open Information” act that China puts forward to look like it’s being transparent. Nevertheless, I think a gradualist approach with concrete steps is more productive than comparing PRC behavior against a set of unenforceable human rights it pretends to adhere to.

    Stepping back further, I think it’s also not as productive to measure China’s behaviors against an ambiguous set of “human rights.” Personally, I believe in those rights. However, from a rhetorical standpoint the PRC can always “out-human-rights” opponents’ human rights arguments, particularly with rehashed protestations over “national sovereignty,” and most recently (and insidiously) rhetoric about “economic human rights” taking precedence. In spite of my firm belief in the idea of universal human rights I also see that, currently, this concept exists on an international level that hovers above national sovereignty but nevertheless is so malleable and lacks an enforcing organization so that any authoritarian nation can pretend to respect human rights while ignoring them at the same time. That being said, I think it’s more fruitful to point out how the government’s actions violate their *own* laws, rather than international standards. It’s much easier to play indignant against “imperialist values” a “Western culture bloc” is trying to push on you, it’s much more difficult to defend contraventions of laws you made on your own uncoerced. Internet censorship contravenes many domestic PRC laws. Any official worth his salt will say it’s done for state security or social stability or whatever, but that just brings us back to my first argument that there should be a publically transparent review process.

    I also think we Westerners need to update our understanding of rights. We have a well explored “freedom of expression” right. What needs to be further fleshed out by intellectuals an activists is that rights’ opposite, “freedom of consumption of information,” or freedom of access to information. Because it’s ultimately the latter, not the former, that internet censorship is all about.

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