In a speech a few weeks ago Hillary Clinton criticized China and other nations for their Internet censorship, warning that what she called an “information curtain” might prevent the citizens of such countries from the free flow of information. Her speech came shortly after Google reported it was the victim of computer hacking that it believed originated in China, announced that it would no longer censor references to the Tiananmen Square Massacre and other taboo topics from its Chinese search engine, and said it might withdraw from China altogether. Clinton said “[i]n an interconnected world, an attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all. Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation.” China responded the next day, saying “the Chinese Internet is open” and the U.S. should “respect the truth and to stop using the so-called Internet freedom question to level baseless accusations.” Most interesting to me was China’s characterization of “[t]he American demand for an unfettered Internet” as “information imperialism:” “[t]he U.S. campaign for uncensored and free flow of information on an unrestricted Internet is a disguised attempt to impose its values on other cultures in the name of democracy.”
One might dismiss China’s rhetoric but this diplomatic fray involves a fundamental problem of Internet governance, which is whose law should apply to resolve Internet disputes? In the U.S. we often regard First Amendment rights to speech, press, assembly, religion, and petition as the manifestation of natural human rights that are fundamental to human dignity and liberty. (That is, we often talk about First Amendment rights in such terms. In practice we are woefully ignorant of the scope of legal protection these rights. Legislatures, with little apparent awareness, pass laws that violate the First Amendment, citizens urge legal sanctions against unpopular ideas, and religious fundamentalists denounce non-believers.) We believe benighted citizens of nations without free-speech traditions await liberation. That may certainly be true, but it is not inevitably, universally true. Imagining how we would react as a nation if another nation prosyletized about its superior beliefs can help one understand China’s reference to information imperialism. Indeed France has been saying much the same thing for years about the effect of American language and culture on French culture. I am not defending moral relativism. I believe that transparency and the free flow of information are better politically, socially, economically, and ethically than secrecy and censorship, but we cannot impose those values and expect cultures in which they have no foothold to embrace them at once.