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Net neutrality and China: A case study

Guys, the FCC is going to rule on net neutrality one month from now. I don’t need to tell you how important this is. (Unless I do, in which case, see here and here. I won’t link to any arguments against it, because there aren’t any good ones.)

The Republican House and Senate have both introduced bills to preempt the FCC’s vote by removing its ability to even regulate ISPs and enforce a neutral Internet.

But how can anyone be in favor of a non-neutral Internet?

Right now, there are people in this world who have no access to the Internet. They exist in impoverished, rural areas, the places where we would like to think would benefit the most from the single greatest collection of knowledge ever created in human history.

In other parts of the world, people have access to the Internet, and they can (mostly) freely access any content — be it today’s weather, Wikipedia or torture porn — at the exact same speed.

And then there is China.

China is home to 650 million Internet users. You may have heard of the Great Firewall and the Communist Party’s attempts to control the Internet within its borders. Right now, China keeps throwing outcyber sovereigntylike it means something. It really, really wants to be able to censor the “Inter”net and would like other countries and Western media to just leave it alone.

When I first arrived here, in the summer of 2009, China was still glowing from its success hosting the Olympics. It seemed confident and refreshed. The Internet was still relatively free, after opening mostly back up from the pre-Olympic crack down. You could go almost anywhere online and post anything you wanted on social networking sites — “offensive” comments would only get taken down after the fact.

But then there was that unrest in Xinjiang, and the CCP cut off all communications in and out of that region, including shutting down Internet access and limiting phone service. It blocked Facebook again.

Following the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, as people in Western nations congratulated themselves on providing everyday people with the tools to overthrow their oppressive governments, China felt justified in banning Twitter.

Since then, every few months or during the run-up to a “sensitive” date or event, the CCP would introduce new and improved censorship tools, making it harder and harder to access certain websites. Even after China started blocking Google and Google services such as Gmail, people within China could still access the search engine and their email — just not every time they tried. (Check out the GreatFire.org’s page on daily Google access since 2011.) Sometimes it would take forever and a million refreshes to load the pages, other times your Internet connection will cut out for a few seconds. Or sometimes you get into your account on the first try, only to be unable to actually read any of your messages (or if you’re conducting a search, you can’t actually access any of the linked search results). Request timeouts became a fact of life here.

Baidu users didn’t have this problem. Yahoo users didn’t have this problem. Bing users, if they existed, wouldn’t have this problem. Only Google users, because the CCP decided that Google content did not deserve the same treatment as other content.

In fact, a website doesn’t even need to be banned or blocked in China for people to experience delays in accessing it. It simply needs to be foreign. The CCP actively throttles access to foreign content while domestic websites are unimpeded. This article looks into several reasons why there is such a huge gap between domestic and international connectivity in China, but I think the main underlying reason is that all domestic websites are under the CCP’s control, while foreign websites are not. The CCP controls what goes up (if you want to operate a website in China, you need to obtain an “Internet content provider” license), what can be seen (censors will block or take down anything the CCP doesn’t like), and who is posting (through its “real name registration” campaign).

Since the end of last year, Gmail is no longer accessible even through third-party platforms (which means I can no longer use my phone to check my email), and now the CCP has managed to block most VPNs. In five short years, the CCP’s Internet censorship capabilities have grown tremendously, and its desire to censor the Internet has become equally ambitious. But the scariest part? The CCP is an avid user of the very websites it blocks. Go on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and search for Xinhua, CCTV, CRI, China Daily and Global Times. They are all on there, posting several times a day, even though the CCP denies its own people (and those foreigners it has graciously allowed within its borders) access to these sites.

Ironic? Yes.

Hypocritical? Very.

Funny? Only because the people tasked to post and tweet are having a hard time doing so.

So, what does all of this have to do with net neutrality? In the U.S., the net neutrality debate is still focused on traffic and connection speeds. But as China shows, controlling connection speeds depending on the content (for example, to use the most cited case, a Netflix movie) is an effective form of censorship. Beyond creating a frustrating experience for the person trying to access the content, it is hindering access to information. ISPs want to charge high-volume data users more money to be able to send or receive the data. Netflix paid off Comcast, and people could stream their favorite TV shows again. The CCP allows Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to operate in China only if they omit from its search results things that make China look bad. For a while, they all did so and operated unimpeded, but then Google decided it no longer wanted to pay the price of censorship. It became increasingly unusable.

This scary picture I just painted of China is an extreme version of what could happen without net neutrality. In other words, censorship could happen. Whether it’s paying money or bowing to the ideology of the gatekeeper, there should never be conditions attached to what information can be accessed and what information can’t. Do you really want your ISP deciding what content you get and what content you get more slowly? What if one day your ISP decides it didn’t want you to get certain content at all? What if one day it decides that you can get your 25 mbsp that you paid for, but only when going to its Facebook page and watching its ads on YouTube? It’s not like you can just easily switch to another ISP.

And guess what. Your ISP is just as soulless and power-hungry as the CCP.

Go to Save the Internet for a comprehensive guide on net neutrality, why it’s important, the latest news (including on the Republican bills), and most importantly, what you can do right now to make it happen.

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