U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday called for a free and open Internet during a town hall meeting with Chinese university students in Shanghai.
“I’m a big believer in technology,” the president said. “And I’m a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information.”
It’s doubtful the ruling class in Beijing will pay much attention to Obama’s calls for greater Internet freedoms. But the president’s words were likely welcomed by the estimated 338 million Internet users in China, and come amid signs that China’s infamous Great Firewall of China shows no signs of cracking.
I Don’t Use Twitter, But I Like It
Obama’s comments on an open Internet came after a member of the U.S. press corps asked the president if he was familiar with the Great Firewall of China. The reporter also asked whether Obama feels Chinese Internet users should have unrestricted access to Websites like Twitter, which is currently banned in the People’s Republic. The president responded by saying he’d never used Twitter, but supports free access to information.
The Chinese government uses its Web censorship system, known as the Great Firewall of China, to restrict access to specific Web sites that Beijing believes are harmful to its interests. Earlier this year, during the 20-year anniversary of the events at Tiananmen Square, Beijing blocked many communications Web sites including Twitter, Hotmail and Flickr. The Global Internet Freedom Consortium has dubbed China’s censorship efforts the “Firewall of Shame,” and says the country has the most vast and comprehensive system of its kind in the world.
Censorship Opposition Censored
The day before Obama spoke out on Internet censorship, officials from the United Nations were reportedly doing their best to support the Chinese position. On Sunday, Open Net Initiative, an anti-censorship group, held a reception as part of the United Nations-sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. The reception was interrupted when IGF security officials entered the event and demanded that a poster mentioning the Great Firewall of China be removed. When event organizers refused, the UN officials removed the poster themselves.
The poster in question was advertising a new book called Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace, which was being introduced at the reception. One organizer said he planned to file a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Commission over the dispute.
Can Obama Do It?
There is a lot of pressure on President Obama to overhaul the U.S. relationship with China. Amid calls from human rights groups and anti-censorship bodies, the American Chamber of Commerce in China is calling on the president to rein in piracy of American intellectual property in the world’s most populous country. For years, pirate copies of American movies, music, and software have been freely available from Chinese street vendors and markets.
But the question remains whether the president can have much effect on a nation that holds trillions of dollars in American debt, and will likely end up financing even more U.S. spending. The New York Times on Sunday equated Obama’s trip to that of a “profligate spender coming to pay his respects to his banker.” It will be difficult for the president to raise issues of human rights, censorship, and piracy with China, when he’s hoping for a loan.
Connect with Ian on Twitter (@ianpaul).