Yesterday, during the "openness" session at the Internet Governance Forum, there was a fascinating interchange among the panelists, the audience, and finally a member of the Chinese government delegation on the question of Chinese censorship of the Internet.
The controversy kicked off with a representative of Rapporteurs Sans Frontieres, a group legendary for their media-stealing antics, from the back of the plenary hall challenging a panelist from CISCO on whether or not the IT company sells equipment to the Chinese police. Then proceeded a number of back-and-forths between the CISCO guy and the Rapporteur guy, allegations shouted, vague answers provided. The audience of several hundred participants seemed uncomfortable with this focus on one country’s practices in the midst of an otherwise general forum on "openness."
Then it really got weird…
Joi Ito, Creative Commons rep and gamer-cum-academic, and Jamie Love, head of the NGO CPTech, came to China and CISCO’s rescue. Joi said that "it’s very easy to want to
paint countries and big companies with a broad brush and sort of paint them bad
or good." Joi continued to explain that "companies and countries are a
myriad of different people with different interests."
Later Jamie commented, "I think it’s good that people focus
on the deplorable state of censorship and repression that exists in China. I
think that’s a very constructive thing." However he continued, "I’d like to say that there are some
other things that China do and that I think also are very positive, like, for
example, in the World Trade Organization, the WTO… They’ve raised the issue that in the WTO that countries are using
intellectual property rights as barriers to trade in ways that are quite
important. And the China initiative has been widely applauded by people that
are seeking more openness in certain areas, particularly in the area of IT
standards and things like that."
At this point, you could tell that participants clearly wanted to move on to other issues related to intellectual property, copyright and digital rights management issues. But that didn”t happen. Instead there was an intervention from the floor. The Asian man didn’t immediately identify himself, but clearly he was speaking on behalf of the Chinese government delegation.
He said, and I quote:
In China, we don’t have software blocking
Internet sites. Sometimes we have trouble accessing them. But that’s a
different problem. And I know that some colleagues listen to the BBC in their
offices from the Webcast. And I’ve heard people say that the BBC is not
available in China or that it’s blocked. I’m sure I don’t know why people say
this kind of thing. I work in Geneva. I am part of the Chinese mission to the
U.N. And I listen to the BBC in my office.
(My emphasis.) This was remarkable stuff. The moderator of the meeting, Nik Gowing of the BBC, pressed him about China’s policy on internet blocking.
"We do not have restriction at all," was his reply.
Everyone in the room was stunned silent. Someone from the back of the room shouted "Come on!" Someone else shouted, "Liar!"
The moderator quickly moved on to other speakers, but clearly the limits of dialogue had been reached on the subject. What’s remarkable from my perspective was that until that exact moment, there was probably a lot of sympathy in the audience for the Chinese, who did seem to get the lion’s share of bashing during the session. But any goodwill was dashed in a moment of typical Chinese government denial and, well, lying.