The West and China Are Converging on Online Speech and PrivacyOctober 13, 2021
Near the outset of my time as a correspondent for The New York Times in China in the early 2000s, during one of my regular conversations with my research assistants, I had an idea for a story that I thought was promising. Beijing was just then cracking down on both video game parlors and internet access, with authorities saying that age limits needed to be imposed and real-name identification required in order to do many things online.
At the time, the state used pornography as the rationale for the moves, arguing that online smut would poison the minds of the youth if strict controls were not placed on internet use. Surely, I told my staff, all of them Chinese nationals, this is just political cover in order to justify encroaching on online freedoms more generally. But they did not agree. How could anyone defend pornography, one of them objected? Although I thought I had made it obvious, that was not my intention.
Despite their opposition, I pursued my idea, even as internet controls in China began to take other forms. Sometime later, for example, I visited the campus of a university in Shanghai, where a team of student censors worked zealously in a hidden-away office to silently intercept and delete writings posted to university message boards and elsewhere on the internet that might displease the Chinese Communist Party and government.
Given the growth of the Chinese internet and the sophistication of censorship efforts in that country today, this may seem to some readers almost like ancient history. I begin with this anecdote, though, to illustrate just how closely issues of privacy and censorship are tracking each other, albeit in parallel, in the United States and China, despite the two countries’ very different political systems.
In the United States today, members of Congress and the public are outraged by the behavior of Facebook and some of its subsidiary companies. Facebook has been rightly denounced as a conduit for politically dangerous “fake news” and other forms of disinformation often promoted by foreign powers—a longstanding complaint of the Chinese government against all information coming from outside the country—while Instagram has been called a toxic cesspool, especially for young girls. The “solutions” to these problems, whether undertaken to no one’s satisfaction by Facebook or those recently proposed by some in Congress, bear an eerie resemblance to measures first adopted in China. Facebook employs teams of people to read content posted on its site to flag the most objectionable material, whether hate speech or dangerously false news—about, say, vaccines—for removal. Dissatisfied with the results of this approach, which strikes many critics as half-hearted and mostly meant to forestall deeper regulation, some legislators are now doing just what Beijing did: demanding real-name identification online.
There are important differences, of course, between a censorship regime that is…