Rebecca MacKinnon's talk could not have been more timely. Recently, a report from the security-consulting firm Mandiant asserted that hackers in a PLA-owned structure on the outskirts of Shanghai were responsible for stealing information from hundreds of US companies. Even more significant than the report's findings about recent cybertheft was what it would mean for the future, especially for relations between China and the United States. MacKinnon juxtaposed 2009, when the U.S.-China struggle about the internet focused on issues of freedom and control, with 2013, when the clash focuses on sovereignty concerns. Is it a sovereign right of a nation to be able to control its internet?
Many in the United States believe that the internet is a vehicle for free speech - it thus should be unimpeded by the choking fingers of state policing. Yet MacKinnon explained how China sees censorship differently. It views the disdained "Great Firewall of China" as similar to a hydroelectric engineering project designed to control the flow of information. When there are times of crisis (floods) it clamps down, and when there are no threats, it lets information flow freely (mostly). China sees this as an inalienable sovereign right, not impeding rights of free speech.
MacKinnon also included observations made by a recent Harvard study about Weibo. The study concluded that most censorship does not typically occur when incendiary remarks are readily accessible on Weibo, but rather most often when remarks constitute a call to action against the CCP or pose threat to the CCP's credibility. She offered several high-profile examples, including the 2012 high-speed crash of a Ferrari in Beijing driven by the son of a senior official, the arrest of human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, and the recently revealed hacking attacks against the New York Times and other American companies.
MacKinnon also discussed the current approaches to internet control beyond the particulars of Chinese censorship. Today, several governing bodies, many of which are based in the United States, control internet protocols. However, the next generation of internet protocols, termed IPV6,might be partly controlled by China, especially with tremendous investment by Chinese firms such as Huawei and others into the new technology. This initiative has been dubbed "China Next Generation Internet." The bottom line is that although the United States has the tremendous entrepreneurial risk-taking resources of Silicon Valley industry that the internet requires, China may be on pace to control the future of the internet. With the recent hacking attacks, and the implications this may have for the future of the internet, America should be watching.
Rebecca MacKinnon is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Consent of the Networked (Basic Books, 2012). She is fluent in Chinese, having spent nine years in Beijing as a journalist and bureau chief for CNN. She has held numerous fellowships at Harvard, including Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Also the co-founder of Global Voices Online, she is an active researcher and contributor for the international blogging community. This event was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Contemporary China (CSCC) at the University of Pennsylvania. For more information about upcoming CSCC events, please visit our website.