Chinese censors blocked mobile services and internet access to reports about dangers at a chemical plant in the north-east city of Dailin on Saturday at the same time the official Xinhua news agency endorsed British Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, suggestion that some people be banned from social media sites in the UK.
This is one of the most insidious and dangerous threats to online freedom we have seen for some time.
Cameron also suggested social media sites needed to take more responsibility for policing what people post.
Cameron’s comments follow on from a widespread violent protests that shook Britain recently. They were intially sparked by the police shooting of a man whom they claimed they were investigating for illegally selling guns.
Initially police said they were fired on and killed the man in return fire. That is now disputed and it appears he never fired a shot.
Cameron’s comments were obviously aimed at soothing an angry electorate who blame the rioting initially on police actions and then the escalation of the rioting on police inaction. Others claim Cameron’s right leaning government’s recent cuts in social spending contributed to the tinder box atmosphere among the0 many disaffected youth who took part.
It is a dangerous and short sighted game to blame social media and propose restricting online access for what are clearly political purposes. Britain has had similar rioting before and it was managed without the benefit of mobile devices or the internet.
Britain must encourage and promote the free flow of information not emulate China and try and control what it’s citizens have access to.
This current situation hightlights the fagility of freedom of speech and open dialogue. If a country like the UK suddenly abandons those principles and emulates China then what moral force does it have to call for democratic reforms there or in any other country.
China says it restricted information access to stop large protests for public order reasons on the weekend. People were protesting at the dangers of chemical contamination from a just closed factory. Many of those protesting in the UK would say they were reacting to an extrajudicial killing and policies that were denying them basic social services such as education, health care and housing.
In neither case can any public disorder be laid at the feet of the mechanisms of information sharing instead China should have done a better job cleaning up potential chemical hazard and Britain again needs to look at the way it conducts its policing and the needs of its most vulnerable.
Angry crowds can be dangerous but the best way to avoid them is to take away the cause of the anger not leave them in ignorance which is in itself a breeding ground for rumor, misinformation and panic.
Below is a DPA analysis of these events and it is well worth looking at. The similarities between the two countries reactions are disturbing and to be congratulated by China for such a move is not a plaudit.
Chinese authorities censored postings on social media and reportedly interrupted some mobile telephone services during Sunday’s protests against a chemical plant in the north-eastern city of Dalian.
Few people were surprised by the reaction from a government that routinely censors the internet, blocks access to Twitter, Facebook and other international social media services, and deletes critical posts from popular Chinese micro-blogging websites.
International rights groups have long criticized China as one of the worst nations for restricting freedom of information.
Its surveillance tools include keyword filters and close monitoring of micro-blogs and phone numbers used by known activists.
But activists often circumvent the restrictions by turning text into a photo or by forwarding screen shots of deleted posts.
Courts have sentenced several people to prison in recent months after convicting them of spreading rumours or circulating allegedly incendiary anti-government statements online and via text messages. Judicial authorities have sent other online rights activists to ‘re-education through labour’ camps without trial.
Yet state media under the ruling Communist Party have been appearing to take some satisfaction from the debate over social media in Britain and the United States, and perhaps even hoping that China could find unexpected Western allies in its struggle to control communication on the internet.
The official Xinhua news agency welcomed British Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement last week, following rioting in London and other cities, that his government would try to ensure that people suspected of inciting violence were banned from social networks.
Cameron also said that the companies operating major social networks should take greater responsibility for policing online content, a similar call to one often made by the Chinese government.
‘The British government, once an ardent advocate of absolute internet freedom, has thus made a U-turn over its stance towards web-monitoring,’ a Xinhua commentary said.
It noted that in February, Cameron had urged Egypt and other North African nations to allow freedom of expression after they tried to restrict the operation of social media, which played a key role in organizing and reporting anti-government protests.
‘We may wonder why Western leaders, on the one hand, tend to indiscriminately accuse other nations of monitoring, but on the other take for granted their steps to monitor and control the internet,’ the commentary said.
After online calls for Chinese activists to stage peaceful anti-government protests from February, China restricted internet access via mobile phones at some planned protest sites in Beijing.
In the crackdown since February, security forces have apparently coerced several prominent activists into suspending or reducing their use of Twitter, which many Chinese dissidents access via virtual private networks to get around government controls.
The government suspended all mobile phone and internet services for some 20 million residents of its far western region of Xinjiang for five months following the death of some 200 people in ethnic violence in July 2009.
Nur Bekri, chairman of the regional government, said later that the services were suspended ‘because they were believed to be the vital tools used by ringleaders to instigate violence.’
Authorities have used similar measures on a smaller scale and for shorter periods in several restive Tibetan areas of China since widespread protests against Chinese rule erupted in 2008.
The crackdowns have come amid an explosion in the number of internet and mobile phone users in China.
About half of China’s estimated 485 million internet users have signed up to Chinese micro-blogging sites.
‘For the benefit of the general public, proper web-monitoring is legitimate and necessary,’ the Xinhua commentary said.
On Friday, dozens of well-known rights activists gathered outside a Beijing court to support Wang Lihong, who was tried for ‘creating a disturbance’ after she organized support for three bloggers who were sentenced to prison in south-eastern China last year.
Calls for support at Wang’s trial came mainly via Twitter and the most popular Chinese micro-blogging service, Sina Weibo, despite the latter blocking searches for Wang and the name of the court.
In another commentary, the Global Times said Chinese advocates of an open internet should ‘think twice’ about their statements and positions.
‘On the Internet, there is no lack of posts and articles that incite public violence,’ the newspaper said.
It called Cameron’s raising of possible restrictions on social media a ‘bold measure.’
‘Such a tactic, which was slammed as a trick resorted to only by authoritarian governments in the past, has had a great impact on world media,’ the newspaper said.
‘Cameron’s suggestion to block social networking websites smashes basic concepts of freedom of speech in the West, which always takes the moral high ground in criticizing the reluctant development of internet freedom in developing countries,’ it said.