China isn’t the only country censoring the web
That supreme and unimpeachable force for worldwide progress, Apple, has this week withdrawn roughly 60 virtual private networks (VPNs) from its App Store in China. This means that Chinese web users will no longer be able to hide from censors working for the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This move is bad news for free speech, and for Chinese people who want to learn more about their leaders and the outside world.
VPNs help dissenters in repressive regimes. They allow access to web content through a separate server by hiding the unique number, or internet protocol address, that comes with a purchased computer. Without VPNs, websites like the right-wing Radio Free Asia, or the BBC and The Economist, are inaccessible from China.
The CCP doesn’t want the Chinese population to read what it doesn’t agree with. Its rampant blocking of web content it deems impermissible is weakness masquerading as strength. It betrays a condescending distrust of the Chinese people’s ability to make up their own minds about what they read.
But the CCP is not alone. British prime minister Theresa May has boasted that she is ‘working with social-media companies to halt the spread of extremist material and hateful propaganda that is warping young minds’. She also wants corporations to ‘do more’. Indeed, the leaders of the US, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Canada have, along with a host of social-media companies, agreed to measures to censor the web. And German chancellor Angela Merkel is way ahead of the curve. In 2015, Merkel notoriously prevailed upon Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to do his bit and take down posts critical of her controversial immigration policy.
Apple’s craven obedience to Beijing’s autocratic demands typifies the general stance of the West. From the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 to Beijing’s abduction of Hong Kong booksellers today, Stalinist repression in China has never really sparked uproar among Western leaders. Yes, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson greeted the 20th anniversary of Chinese rule over Hong Kong with the limp hope that it would ‘make further progress towards a more democratic and accountable system of government’. But Western IT firms and politicians can hardly pose as guardians of internet freedom.
James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University. He is also editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.
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