Putting up with Internet censorship in China is a pain, but could two upcoming bills meant to fight online piracy bring problems to the United States? James Weir explains.
Whether you're a week into your first China vacation or a grizzled mainland expat fluent in multiple dialects, using the Internet in China can be a massive pain in the donkey. For all of this country's blind hurtling into the technological future, China remains terrible at the Internet. Spotty service, slow connections and seemingly arbitrary and constantly shifting site blockages (Proxy servers and VPNs make it easy for anyone to browse sites blocked in China.
But while we're googling unimpeded and using Facebook in China, back in the United States, something is afoot. Two separate pieces of legislation, the Protect IP Act (as in "intellectual property") and the Stop Online Piracy Act, are circulating in the Senate and House of Representatives, respectively. Unlike the Great Firewall, which functions primarily as a way for the government to control and suppress sensitive information, the legislation in Congress aims to curtail the omnipresent illegal sharing of copyrighted material on the Internet by granting the government unprecedented liberties in Internet regulation. More after the jump...
The ease with which anyone in the world can obtain intellectual property on the Internet at no cost is no doubt cause for alarm. Justifiably, many powerful organizations within the US (the Motion Picture Association of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Musicians, among others) are voicing serious concerns about their continued struggle to eek profits from their creative enterprises and their uphill battle against those who wish to disseminate and obtain that content for free. Here in China, where bootlegged products run the gamut from dirt-cheap DVD's to fake liquor, a crackdown on internet piracy would most likely have little to no effect on the nonchalance with which we steal intellectual property. But in America, where it is considerably more difficult to find retail outlets carrying illegally-produced goods, an effective campaign against property theft on the Internet could have a serious (and positive) impact on the industries most affected by the major shifts that have taken place since the Internet revolutionized the way we think about sharing information.
But there are serious problems with the legislation in its current form, and it's difficult to imagine any bill that would effectively target theft while posing no threat to the freedoms we hold dear. While the intentions of America's proposed Internet regulations stand in stark contrast to the aims of China's Great Firewall, there is a troubling clause in the House's SOPA that would make the US law significantly more problematic than China's irritating but mostly harmless foray into censorship: an anti-circumvention rule that would make it illegal for any US citizen to bypass the government's imposed blockages. At this early stage, it's impossible to predict what the practical implications of such a law would be and how it would be executed. But it seems highly unlikely that any legislation passed would be a perfectly executed campaign against illegal content that would have no negative impacts on legal, law-abiding service providers and websites. And in the event that such collateral damage were to be inflicted, the thought that individuals could be prosecuted for violating misguided governmental blockages is troubling.
But for now, the Internet in America remains free, and the Internet here in China is manageable. People who want to use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in China and have the means to circumvent the ban may do so without fear of prosecution or interference. So if you're planning a trip to China, or moving here for work, get yourself a VPN or steel yourself for life without YouTube's viral videos, Twitter's tweets and Facebook's status updates. Or you can always get a Weibo account.