Modesty, tolerance, courtesy, and other noble virtues form the cement that holds Chinese society together. From its beginnings more than 4,000 years ago, the Celestial Empire has matured into a society of people more interested in a stable community than in personal gain. So the Chinese are often viewed as a noble civilization that has needed to protect itself from the savage forces of the world. The Great Wall of China was built, starting nearly 3,000 years ago, to protect the people from invaders of the north.
Today the savage forces that threaten China may not be as corporeal as the Mongol Hordes, but they are cause for concern nonetheless. In this Age of Information, the onslaught comes from the Internet… which isn’t just an ocean of useful and creative information from all walks of life, from all fields of endeavor, and from all corners of the world. It also has festering currents of pornography, violence, gambling, hate-mongering, fear-mongering, self-indulgence and other troubled forces that can destabilize a healthy society… so the Chinese have built what is often called the Great Firewall of China, a government effort to filter out the savage forces from the Internet before they can corrupt Chinese society. Not an easy task in a young era of free-flowing information!
Google, with its powerful search engine and its Google Maps and Google Earth technologies, is the epitome of the Internet forces that are so quickly transforming the world by erasing borders. Born in the USA in 1996, the company is also the embodiment of America, which thrives on the virtue of freedom—free enterprise, free flow of information, personal freedom… often (as might be expected of a young nation like the USA and a teenage company like Google) at the expense of those noble values of modesty, tolerance, and courtesy that are so important in more mature nations like China.
So it’s no surprise that conflicts between China and Google would come to a head and boil over into international tensions as they’ve done in recent days… with Google pushing Chinese censorship boundaries, the Chinese government allegedly hacking Google’s vast database to steal intellectual property, Google threatening to pull out of China, and the US government formally protesting the attacks.
There are a lot of little interesting issues fueling the situation:
- The Obama Administration last year recruited Google’s global affairs expert Andrew McLaughlin, who’s a big advocate of unrestricted information on the Internet.
- Google has only a 20-percent market share in China, lagging behind Baidu, the search engine used by nearly 70 percent of Chinese Internet users.
- With an emphasis on community stability over individual rights, the Chinese don’t subscribe to international copyright laws… so Baidu offers free music downloads to Chinese Internet subscribers… one main reason for its popularity.
- “The current bumper crop of malware is very sophisticated, highly targeted and designed to infect, conceal access, siphon data or, even worse, modify data without detection,” according to McAfee analyst George Kurtz.
But let’s dig beneath the surface of the situation to look for a real, lasting solution.
Who Should Regulate the Internet?
Internet-related issues like this are bound to keep surfacing as long as the free flow of information enjoyed by countries like the USA presents problems for societies (especially communist and Islamic countries) that might want to filter out smut, gambling, and other destabilizing forces from web traffic into their societies. It would be presumptuous at this juncture to assume that one approach to regulating information is better than another. Different societies have different needs.
I’d like to see the world network develop in such a way that each individual, each organization and each nation or religion could tailor the information uniquely, within the framework set by the higher levels. And in my book, of course, the highest level would be an empowered United Nations. The UN, whose agencies already manage many of the standards in worldwide electronics and telecommunications, should be given more authority to operate the Internet, mostly to ensure its stability and international compatibility. Within that umbrella, each nation or religion or multinational corporation could establish its own standards, based on its own political or religious or business model. As these macro systems overlap and cross-cut each other they will have to open dialogs to negotiate common ground and acceptable standards for all.
Within the macro systems, individual businesses and communities and other groups would further tailor the standards for their own purpose, always within the framework provided by the higher levels. Finally, most of the tailoring would be done at the personal level to fit the needs and desires of the end user.
The basic question, of course, is, “How and by whom will world information be regulated in the future?”
For now, many of us have very mixed feelings about how to address that question. Our noble side says, “Yes, we want protection for ourselves, and especially for our children, from the predatory peddlers of pornography, drugs, gambling, and other threats to our weaknesses that are so prevalent on the Internet.” Our savage side argues, “I don’t want some politically driven or profit-motivated authority dictating Internet content and probably charging me lots of fees! It’s up to us to protect ourselves and our families from the smut peddlers. Don’t tamper with the Internet!”
So, again, we need to move very carefully when addressing that crucial question: “How and by whom will world information be regulated in the future?” You know, from above, what I think is best for the world.