Law in the Internet Society

Why China Is A Good Battle Field For The Free Software Movement?

-- By ShimengCheng - 30 Nov 2012

In the United States and other western democratic societies, the harm of internet surveillance and data mining is largely invisible to the public. There are substantial difficulties to mobilize the public to fight against an invisible evil. For example, among the very few people who are aware of the business intelligence studies carried out by Facebook and Google (e.g. students in our class), many are still very reluctant to give up their Gmail and Facebook accounts because of the perceived conveniences, because of the sense that no direct harm is done, or because of peer pressure and their social networking habits formed in the past few years. It is a human nature to be more tolerant to an invisible harm vis-a-vis to an obvious harm with consequences that you can feel right away.

Whiles in a centralized regime such as China, the general public is well aware of the harm from government internet surveillance, criminalization of speech and internet content restrictions. People crave for new technologies that can break through the government control of internet. People are also willing to share these technologies that guard their freedom. I started to be a netizen in China since 2002. In the past 10 years, I have seen numerous methods used by the Chinese government to control speech in the internet. However, there has always been grass-roots effort made to invent softwares that can circumvent the control. One example is when the Chinese government imposed strict content control in Sina Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter in China) in recent years, there has emerged numerous versions of free softwares, developed by professionals and amateurs, that help people to convert their text postings into pictures that are not easily content-searchable. Another example is the pervasive free VPN sharing among Chinese netizens, which has enabled a lot of people to break through the Great Firewall of China. Decentralized, grass-root software making and free sharing are so powerful that the Chinese government, with the billions of dollar it invest in developing speech-control technologies, has never achieved the level of speech control that it contemplated.

Admittedly, active participants in the free software movements may face more prosecution in a centralized society. But when the government interference with human freedom is so obvious, people who invent softwares that help human freedom are more willing to give up the proprietary rights on their inventions. When the enemy is visible, there are more sharing and less selfish acts.

People in centralized regimes will also pay more tribute to the free software movement. They have a more compelling story to tell to the rest of the world about how centralized software making can harm human freedom and how decentralized software making can do otherwise. The success of free software in centralized regimes will also be an alarm to democratic countries, warning them about the dangers embodied in relying on large centralized service platforms like Google and Facebook. The centralized country stories also serves as an example about how power can easily be abused under the current internet architecture.

On the other hand, the Chinese government also has strong incentives to defeat the current monopolizing power on the net, e.g. Google and Facebook. Out of national security concerns, the Chinese government strictly controls the accessibility of Google softwares in China. Facebook is also currently unavailable to Chinese netizens. In a domestic level, the Chinese government helps to develop its own monopolizing powers in the net, e.g. Sina Weibo and Baidu. Whiles on a global level, the Chinese government may endorse the free software notions because within a very long time in the future, Chinese service providers on the net cannot win over their US competitors in the global market. It is China's advantage to mass manufacture cheap personal server plugs like Freedom Box that serve the whole world, but it is unlikely in the near future that China can have a global influential internet company.

Last but not the least, China has a big population of highly skilled computer engineers that form the potential force for widespread decentralized grass-root software making. With a day-to-day visible harm to freedom in everyone's life, the free software movement can easily mobilize people to participate in making free softwares. For the reasons above, China is a good battlefield for the free software movement. It is a good place to start the movement, and also an important battlefield of the movement.

I agree with your view. The problems are also non-trivial, and we have given much thought to them. We should discuss this further, together.

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r3 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:33:51 - EbenMoglen
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