Last week I attended a quiet event in San Francisco called the U.S.-China Internet Industry Forum, organized by Microsoft. This is the forum's third year - last year they met in Shanghai and the year before in Redmond. Attendees included executives from major U.S. and Chinese Internet companies, a few academics, and government officials from both countries - the highest ranking being Cai MIngzhao, Deputy Director of the Chinese Communist Party's Propaganda Department, and Robert Hormats, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs. The event was an opportunity for key players from industry and government - from the country which invented the Internet and the country with the world's largest number of Internet users - to hold frank conversations in a relatively informal setting without the pressure of government or business negotiations. For a good part of the time, however, I felt like I was in the middle of a more sophisticated and nuanced version of this video mashup on YouTube:For readers who don't follow all the twists and turns of Chinese Internet policy and/or understand Chinese, a bit of background. (For people who do, skip down below the jump.) Earlier this year, the Chinese government issued an edict requiring that all computers sold in China after July 1st had to come pre-installed with censorware called Green Dam-Youth Escort. While the ostensible purpose of this software was child-protection, it also censored political content and subjected users to external monitoring. (The government later backed down on this edict as a result of industry backlash.) Soon after the government edict became public a BBC journalist asked Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman why the government was requiring Green Dam censor-ware on all of China's computers:
Qin Gang's response:
"do you have any children? If you have any children or you are expecting some, you can understand the concern of the parents over the harmful Internet content. The Internet in China is open and the Chinese Government endeavors to promote sound development of the Internet. However, the Government also regulates the Internet according to law so as to safeguard the interests of the public and prevent the spread of harmful content."
The video juxtaposes Qin's statement with President Obama's remarks about the Internet at his town hall event in Shanghai:
"Think about -- when I think about my daughters, Malia and Sasha -- one is 11, one is 8 -- from their room, they can get on the Internet and they can travel to Shanghai. They can go anyplace in the world and they can learn about anything they want to learn about. And that's just an enormous power that they have. And that helps, I think, promote the kind of understanding that we talked about."
Back to the U.S.-China Internet Industry Forum. Much of the day-and-a-half long forum was under the Chatham House Rule, which means that participants can report on what was said but can't attribute anything directly. There were, however, several on-the-record keynote speeches. Cai and Hormats echoed the Qin-Obama riff. Here is how Xinhua News Agency reported Cai's speech:
An important part of network security was to ensure the security of online information, said Cai Mingzhao, former deputy director of China's State Council Information Office and an adviser to the Internet Society of China [note: they omitted his Communist Party post], which co-hosted the one-and-a-half-day forum with Microsoft Corporation.
Pornography, fraud, spam, online attacks and computer viruses were serious threats to information security and were impairing the public's confidence in the Internet, he said in a keynote speech on Thursday.
"Under such circumstances, it is not enough to emphasize the free flow of information alone. Information security should be put in a prominent position," Cai told an audience of more than 100 government officials, business leaders, academics and other representatives from both countries.
"If network information security is not guaranteed, the information flow will become irregular. If illegal and harmful information are allowed to flow rampantly without checks, it will do great harm to the real society," he said.
Cai said the first priority of ensuring online security should be protecting adolescents, as teenagers had become the largest online group and whose growth was increasingly influenced by the Internet.
Each country has its own unique circumstances, differing from each other in Internet penetration, economic and social development, cultural traditions and laws, Cai said, adding that ensuring online security should fully respect the cultural diversity and concerns of all countries.
"Therefore, Internet security around the world is unable to be measured by a unified standard. It is impossible to regulate security with a single law or manage it in a single pattern," Cai said.
What Xinhua did not report is that Cai called for the U.S. and China to move beyond differences and instead work together on four issues of common concern: Child protection, online intellectual property protection, spam, and cyber-security. He called on the two sides to create specific bilateral workstreams focused on these issues.
Hormats, on the other hand, spoke of common ground but also made it clear that the differences are meaningful. While Chinese media covered Cai's remarks, they did not mention any elements of Hormats' talk that differed from Cai's views. No U.S. media appear to have reported on the forum at all - at least not on news outlets available to the public domain. The State Department has not released a transcripts of his remarks either. I took notes and made a recording of his on-the-record speech in which Hormats emphasized that Internet freedom is important to the U.S. government. Here is an extended excerpt of the portion of the speech devoted to free expression (with relevant links added):
...The Internet offers us an unparalleled opportunity to acquire knowledge if we allow ourselves unrestricted access to it. As president Obama noted in his townhall meeting, freely flowing information allows people to think for themselves and to generate new ideas. It also encourages a great deal of creativity. this is true not only politically but also economically. The internet has produced entire new industries and revolutionized distribution of design and development of both goods and services. Unrestricted access to information is vital to the types of innovation that spark economic growth.
...It is the users and developers of online content who make our connections to the world wide web so valuable. Secretary Clinton has made improved access to information a significant part of her policy focus. She stated in a recent speech: "President Obama and i are committed to defending freedom of expression on the new terrain of the 21st century." Within the State Department our newly revitalized Global Internet Freedom Taskforce is ready to play a leading role in this critical effort. The task force, a policy coordinating body within the state department, co-chaired by myself and the State Department's Undersecretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero, works to advance free expression and access to information on the Internet. The State Department monitors and reports on threats to Internet freedom around the world. It pursues the free flow of information and freedom of expression on the Internet in our bilateral relationship and through multilateral organizations as well.
The right to freedom of expression and the importance of the free flow of information over the Internet were confirmed by all participating governments at both phases of the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003 and then again in 2005, including the Tunis Commitment, and continue to form the foundation of U.S. government efforts on Internet freedom throughout the world.
We also work closely with individual companies and industry groups to foster improved access to information. one example is the Global Network Initiative, a group of leading private sector companies, NGO's, academicians and investors, that seeks to advance both freedom of expression and privacy in information and communication technologies. A number of the authors and leading advocates of the GNI are represented here today, and i commend them for their vision and their initiative. As president obama noted in his town hall meeting in Shanghai, we believe that certain core principles enshrined in our founding documents are universal rights also present in international documents like the universal declaration of human rights and we speak out for these principles around the world
We believe that commerce should be open and the information should generally be freely accessible. we recognize that potential downsides and risks may come with new technology, such as threats to children and online ability of terrorists to use the internet to organize. we look forward to working with China and the private sector both here and abroad to mitigate these risks while maximizing the free flow of information.
Hormats commended China for embracing the Internet and the global telecommunications revolution. He spoke at some length about the importance of the Internet in economic growth and recovery around the world. He also expressed concern about barriers erected by Chinese regulators against U.S. companies entering or fairly competing in the Chinese market. Later in the speech he also emphasized the importance of child protection, cyber security, and protecting intellectual property. If a full transcript of the speech becomes available later I will link to it here. (Update 12/19: An overview post about the forum by Microsoft VP Pamela Passman can be found here, and the transcript of a speech by Microsoft's Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie is here.)
In a closed door session devoted to Internet governance later that morning (which, according to the Chatham House Rule I can report on in general as long as I don't quote or attribute anybody directly), another Chinese official and another U.S. official outlined their governments' positions, with corporate and academic participants also contributing.
The Chinese side emphasized that if Americans better understood the challenges faced by the Chinese government in maintaining social order, and if they realized that Chinese citizens hold high expectations toward their government in that regard, Americans would be more sympathetic to the Chinese government's policy choices and actions. Social problems tend to be amplified online and if people are allowed to do whatever they want on the Chinese Internet that would disrupt social stability, which they pointed out is in nobody's interest, and - given the Chinese Internet's size - isn't conducive to shared global goals of child protection, cyber-security and intellectual property protection anyway. They appealed to the Americans to focus more on commonalities and not try to impose their values on everybody else.
The U.S. side focused more specifically on the future of global Internet governance, emphasizing three overarching goals: interconnectivity, free flow of information, and preserving the Internet's "dynamism." The best way of preserving that dynamism is to "leave it alone" as much as possible, and specifically not to put Internet governance in the hands of an "intergovernmental institution." The U.S. government supports a multistakeholder approach with a leading role for ICANN accompanied by a renewed mandate for the Internet Governance Forum. Putting Internet governance in the hands of inter-government bodies such as the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union is not desirable because such institutions can't keep up with the pace of technological change. Restrictions on the free flow of information should be a "rare exception" in very narrowly defined cases of child pornography, human trafficking, and terrorism. Errors of under-reaction and over-reaction can only be achieved through continuous dialogue between public and private sectors.
Asked to make some brief comments, I suggested that we combine components of both Chinese and U.S. suggestions made that day. Why not set up U.S.-China "work streams" to drill down on problem-solving in specific areas Mr. Cai suggested like cyber-security, child protection, and intellectual property. But as both Hormats and other U.S. officials pointed out, the Internet is what it is today not just thanks to the efforts of governments and big Internet companies, but because of the actions and choices of small entrepreneurs and individual Internet users of all kinds. Therefore it only makes sense that such work streams should be truly multi-stakeholder in nature, including members of civil society, representatives of user groups, consumer groups, open source programming groups, and other stakeholders - because after all, no solutions to any of the problems discussed are going to succeed without broad-based support and buy-in from netizens around the globe. Models for multi-stakeholder problem-solving are still in their infancy and have much room for improvement (as neither members of civil society nor the Chinese government hesitate to point out). So why not experiment with using bilateral meetings as an opportunity to improve on the multi-stakeholder model - in a more narrow situation involving only two cultures, instead of hundreds? A number of American heads nodded. I did not detect a positive reaction to this idea from the Chinese side. They did tell me that they wished my criticism of their censorship would be better balanced by an explanation of all the reasons why they need to do what they do. A corporate person asked me what might be done to help bridge misunderstandings between the two countries. I suggested that more direct dialogue between citizens of both countries - and more platforms to facilitate such interaction - would be helpful.
Of course, the problem is that the Chinese citizens participating in such citizen dialogue may not necessarily be in lockstep with their government's positions... And oh yeah, you don't really need to build anything new or special because there are all kinds of great social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook out there... But wait they're blocked in China so Americans only wind up interacting with the most determined Chinese Internet users who are angry about censorship and figured out how to use circumvention tools....Which is why in another keynote speech at the forum, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales argued that the best way for China to get its story out is to let its citizens communicate with the world through unblocked platforms...