As members of Congress edge away from the Stop Online Piracy Act, leaders of the opposition can count among their most frequently used rhetorical tools a metaphor that has come to define this debate: SOPA = China.
The legislation would impose a “chilling internet censorship regime here in the U.S. comparable in some ways to China’s ‘Great Firewall,’” Wired wrote. Sergey Brin—who led G-Day, Google’s withdrawal from mainland China—said that the bills would “put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world.” Rebecca MacKinnon, an Internet-freedom expert who used to be journalist in Beijing, says they would impose a “censorship mechanism that is almost identical, technically, to the mechanism the Chinese use to censor their Internet.”
So, how does it all look to the people who actually live with it? In China, the reaction to American protests has ranged from sympathy to gentle Schadenfreude, as Chinese Web users try to sort out whether they are being held up as victims or patsies or pirates. After several years in which American diplomats have inveighed against Internet censorship in China, the proposals have inspired a bit of snickering. “The Great Firewall turns out to be a visionary product; the American government is trying to copy us,” one commentator wrote. A Chinese message making the rounds on Thursday said: “At last, the planet is becoming unified: We are ahead of the whole world, and the ‘American imperialists’ are racing to catch up.”
Fittingly, perhaps, the discussion has unfolded on Weibo, the Twitter-like micro-blogging site that has a team of censors on staff to trim posts with sensitive political content. That is the arrangement that opponents of the bill have suggested would be required of American sites if they are compelled to police their users’ content for copyright violations. On Weibo, joking about SOPA’s similarities to Chinese censorship was sensitive enough that some posts on the subject were almost certainly deleted (though it can be hard to know). But among those that survived, a commentator known as Dr. Zhang wrote: “I’ve come up with a perfect solution: You can come to China to download all your pirated media, and we’ll go to America to discuss politically sensitive subjects.”
There are, needless to say, differences of degree. While Chinese sites censor references to Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama and other third-rail political issues, the force comes not in the act of censorship, but in the instances when prosecutions follow: the Chinese woman sentenced to a year of reform through labor for retweeting a joke, or the student detained for forwarding what authorities called a “rumor” about the murder of eight village officials. (h/t Isaac Stone Fish at Foreign Policy.)
After Chinese Web users got over the strangeness of hearing Americans debate the merits of screening the Web for objectionable content, they marvelled at the American response. Commentator Liu Qingyan wrote:
We should learn something from the way these American Internet companies protested against SOPA and PIPA. A free and democratic society depends on every one of us caring about politics and fighting for our rights. We will not achieve it by avoiding talk about politics.
There was little expectation that Chinese Web sites would ever band together to express their opposition to censorship: “Baidu, would you dare do something like this?” one asked.
The most eloquent response to the controversy, perhaps, was one that nobody saw at all. Commentator Shi Han wrote about trying to post a comment to Tencent, the giant Chinese portal. “I’ve written a short article about SOPA. But when I tried to put it up, Tencent replied with a message: ‘Your content has not passed review.’”
Photograph by Nelson Ching/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
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