With this week's news that the Gmail accounts of foreign journalists in China had been hacked, coming on the heels of last week's brazen attacks on the accounts of Chinese human rights activists and the broad, sophisticated cyberattacks on about 34 U.S. companies, the Chinese assault on Internet freedom is now out in the open for all the world to see.
The challenge to Internet freedom posed by China is formidable and calls for a bold response. To this end, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will unveil a new technology-policy initiative on Jan. 21. But merely stressing the importance of Internet freedom will not be enough. The U.S. government must be prepared to back up its ideals with bold action.
The Chinese government censors the Internet in multiple ways, using extensive, multi-layered systems. It blocks social networking applications at critical times, as it did with Twitter on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre; it filters politically sensitive content; and it uses human censors to shut down online discussions about human rights abuses, official corruption, and other forbidden subjects. The regime also pressures private companies, such as blog hosts, to police their users.
But the assault goes well beyond censorship. The Chinese government also conducts pervasive online surveillance and uses sophisticated technology to monitor and intercept emails. State security has forced detained dissidents to give up their passwords, allowing agents to access their address books and identify all of their contacts. It has also subjected cyber-dissidents to arrest, prosecution, and harsh jail sentences. Through this combination of censorship, surveillance, and retribution against dissent, the Chinese government maintains the world's most extensive system for stifling political speech online.
Clinton's Internet freedom initiative will have limited effect if it merely re-packages existing policy. The importance of Internet freedom is well known -- it was often articulated by the George W. Bush administration -- and $20 million is already allocated for programs to help human rights and democracy activists evade censorship and maintain their privacy in countries such as China, Iran, and Syria. Moreover, as part of this year's appropriations bill, Congress has pumped another $30 million into these programs.