It seems cheap sneakers, iPads and iPhones, and a Christmas wish list of consumer goods won't be China's only exports arriving on America's shores. Censorship and government meddling in a free and open Internet might be turning up, too.
In November, Congress began holding hearings on SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act), a bill that will crack down on online intellectual property theft. Targeting "rogue websites" that host copyright infringing content - music, movies, books, software and the digital likes - the House bill and its Senate counterpart, the PROTECT IP Act, authorize the Department of Justice to maintain a blacklist of block-worthy sites, most of which exist on servers outside America's jurisdiction.
Despite the facade of pure and noble intents - combating the theft of U.S. property - the House bill provides broad and ambiguous definitions that will not only block online pirate havens but also cause innocent websites to get caught in SOPA's nets. It will also make it easier for the government and entertainment industry to pressure Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like PenTeleData, to monitor individual user traffic.
Blacklisted Web domains. Government oversight. Widespread blocking. These are words and phrases typically reserved for the likes of despotic regimes Cuba or Iran for example - where pervasive censorship is the norm.
As Time magazine puts it, SOPA will allow the government to eliminate alleged pirate sites by essentially "disappearing them," or making them invisible or inaccessible on your web browser. "Disappearing," unless you're referring to a magic act, is another one of those words that should never be associated with the actions of democracies.
The Chinese government certainly isn't shy about its censorship. Since China began opening up in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, the government has been engaged in a constant balancing act between openness and control, says Rebecca MacKinnon in her essay "Flatter World and Thicker Walls." Deng likened reform to opening a window for fresh air only to have a few "flies" (read, new ideas that run counter to the Party line) blow in.
To swat those flies in the modern age of the Internet, China has between 30,000 and 50,000 people involved with the Ministry of Public Security's Golden Shield Project, commonly called the "Great Firewall of China," according to Amnesty International. The project employs a variety of techniques to monitor the flow of traffic and control what sites are accessible to China's close to 500 million Internet users.
Websites affiliated with the Taiwanese government or the Dalai Lama are blocked, as are those that have, as broadly defined by the government, obscene or pornographic content. Sites with less than favorable opinions of China's human rights violations or authoritarian leadership also make the blacklist.
The big three social networking sites - Facebook, Twitter and YouTube - and other forums where content is predominantly user generated are permanent members of the blacklist following their use by rioters during uprisings in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang the following year.
In the absence of Western social media, Chinese copycats - Renren, Weibo and YouKu - have developed loyal followings of netizens. But even with its social networks on a short leash, China is starting to rethink their role in Chinese society. Perhaps spooked by civil unrest in the Middle East or the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has evolved from a strictly American movement into a global phenomenon, China's leadership is imposing new restrictions on social media, the most prominent of which is real name registration.
From firsthand experience, dealing with the Great Firewall of China is certainly annoying but easily tolerable. If I want to chat with friends on Facebook, or check out a new YouTube video, or update my non-political travel blog, or tweet, or retweet, or have full access to Gmail, or even view the Times News' webpage (apparently its coverage is too sensitive and controversial for Chinese readers and has subsequently been blocked here), I just have to log into a subscription-based proxy service that allows me to circumvent China's firewalls. Most tech-savvy Chinese also have this software and know-how.
As inconvenient as access denial to certain websites gets, for the most part I'm indifferent towards the Chinese government's Internet censoring protocols, because that's what I've come to expect of China. My expectations for America are higher.
Granted, SOPA doesn't go to the same censorship extremes as China. It doesn't even come close. The Chinese government is out to quash political comments on sensitive China-centric issues. SOPA is meant to protect American intellectual property from foreign online pirates, with China among the largest of these copyright-infringing marauders. But the similarities are still there.
Aside from assigning blacklisting authority to the government, SOPA will require website operators to prove their sites aren't being used for copyright infringement, the same "guilty until proven innocent" guidelines the Chinese government imposes on domestic social networking sites. The House bill also puts an unprecedented burden on ISPs to comb over all user traffic to find violators or face punishment themselves. Censoring could quickly turn into over-censoring as ISPs, looking to avoid litigation, block sites that aren't hosting copyrighted material but share keywords or have user posted links with sites that do.
The necessity for stronger laws to clamp down on web-based piracy is definitely there, especially with Hollywood studios, record companies and publishing houses claiming $135 billion in annual loses from online theft. American intellectual property deserves protection, but perhaps not the way Congress is proposing, and certainly not if it emulates the kind of draconian tactics employed by China's Internet censoring goons.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at http://www.btay200.blogspot.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.