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US-CHINA: Spat Escalates Over Internet Freedom

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Jan 26 2010 (IPS) - The stern warning given to China by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemning internet censorship and responding to allegations that Chinese hackers had accessed Google email addresses has received a pointed response from the Chinese government, raising questions over what the next move will be for Google, the United States, and U.S. firms that do business in China.

On Thursday, Clinton laid out the national security threat posed by cyber attacks and warned that attacks would not go unnoticed and would bring a response.

“States, terrorist and those who would act as their proxies must know that the United States will protect our networks,” said Clinton.

“Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government and our civil society,” she continued.

The Chinese response to Clinton’s remarks took sharply differing tones depending on which audience Beijing was addressing.

On the foreign ministry website, the government responded on Friday with measured language, saying, “The U.S. attacks China’s internet policy, indicating that China has been restricting internet freedom. We resolutely oppose such remarks and practices that contravene facts and undermine China-U.S. relations,” and, “We urge the U.S. to respect facts and stop attacking China under the excuse of the so-called freedom of internet.”

But in state-controlled news outlets, primarily published for a domestic readership, the war of words was much more harshly framed.

“Accusation that the Chinese government participated in cyber attacks, either in an explicit or inexplicit way, is groundless and aims to denigrate China. We are firmly opposed to that,” a spokesman of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology told Xinhua News Agency on Sunday.

The state-controlled newspaper, The Global Times, wrote, “China’s real stake in the ‘free flow of information’ is evident in its refusal to be victimised by information imperialism.”

“With the Chinese-language media, there are two important themes to keep in mind. First, [the controversy over Google] is really not that big a deal. The Chinese Google saga is really more interesting to people in Washington than most average folks in Beijing or elsewhere,” Christina Larson, an expert on Chinese civil society and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, told IPS.

“The second thing is that it’s portrayed [in the Chinese media] as really this sense that foreign companies don’t really have the right to come in and dictate their terms to China,” Larson continued.

The war of words between Beijing and Washington was set off on Jan. 12 when Google announced its intention to cease the censorship of its search engine results in China and disclosed that a number of Google email accounts used by human rights advocates, diplomats and journalists had been breached by Chinese hackers.

The accusations were followed by other rumours and allegations that Chinese hackers had stolen proprietary Google source code, and that cyber attacks and corporate espionage originating from China were becoming increasingly big concerns for the U.S. government and U.S. companies doing business in China.

The mixture of accusations coming from Google, and Clinton’s calls for a Chinese investigation into the allegations, have left a somewhat confusing message about what Google seeks from Beijing in the upcoming discussions over its refusal to continue censoring search results.

Experts have suggested that the U.S. government could bring a case to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) charging that China’s internet censorship unfairly disadvantaged “imported” internet based services or that Chinese government institutions participated in violations of intellectual property rights.

The insider newsletter, The Nelson Report, questioned the effectiveness of a WTO case challenging Chinese censorship, but concluded that a case based on Chinese government participation in intellectual property theft may be a route that the U.S. could pursue.

“[W]e remain interested in hearing why it would not be a good idea to challenge the Chinese government IF the [U.S. government] is willing to go on record at the WTO with evidence it has accumulated on certain ‘hacks’, [intellectual property rights] thefts, and sabotage attacks, which it can show came from within official Chinese organs and institutions,” wrote Chris Nelson

Reports have suggested that Google will seek to maintain some presence in China even if its search engine’s site – – is forced to shut its doors.

Google’s announcement on Jan. 12 put the spotlight on China’s censorship and cyber attacks to an unprecedented degree.

How Google intends to move forward with negotiating with Chinese authorities after their – and Clinton’s – very public denunciation of Beijing’s practices raises questions about what strategy Google is employing.

“Making the Chinese government look bad and prompting a ‘tsk tsk’ speech from Hillary Clinton doesn’t engender good feelings from Beijing. There’s a lot more going on in terms of what Google wants or expects than what their public statement has said,” said Larson.

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