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Congressional Research Service, "China, Internet Freedom, and U.S. Policy," July 13, 2012

This report was written by Thomas Lum (acting section research manager/specialist in Asian affairs), Patricia Moloney Figliola (specialist in internet and telecommunications policy), and Matthew C. Weed (analyst in foreign policy legislation).
July 13, 2012

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has the world’s largest number of Internet users, estimated at 500 million people. Despite government efforts to limit the flow of online news, Chinese Internet users are able to access unprecedented amounts of information, and political activists have utilized the Web as a vital communications tool. In recent years, Twitter-like microblogging has surged, resulting in dramatic cases of dissident communication and public comment on sensitive political issues. However, the Web has proven to be less of a democratic catalyst in China than many observers had hoped. The PRC government has one of the most rigorous Internet censorship systems, which relies heavily upon cooperation between the government and private Internet companies. Some U.S. policy makers have been especially critical of the compliance of some U.S. Internet communications and technology (ICT) companies with China’s censorship and policing activities.

The development of the Internet and its use in China have raised U.S. congressional concerns, including those related to human rights, trade and investment, and cybersecurity. The link between the Internet and human rights, a pillar of U.S. foreign policy towards China, is the main focus of this report. Congressional interest in the Internet in China is tied to human rights concerns in a number of ways. These include the following:

  • The use of the Internet as a U.S. policy tool for promoting freedom of expression and other rights in China,
  • The use of the Internet by political dissidents in the PRC, and the political repression that such use often provokes,
  • The role of U.S. Internet companies in both spreading freedom in China and complying with PRC censorship and social control efforts, and
  • The development of U.S. Internet freedom policies globally.

Since 2006, congressional committees and commissions have held nine hearings on Internet freedom and related issues, with a large emphasis on China. In response to criticism, in 2008, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, and other parties founded the Global Network Initiative, a set of guidelines that promotes awareness, due diligence, and transparency regarding the activities of ICT companies and their impacts on human rights, particularly in countries where governments frequently violate the rights of Internet users to freedom of expression and privacy. In the 112th Congress, the Global Online Freedom Act (H.R. 3605) would require U.S. companies to disclose any censorship or surveillance technology that they provide to Internet-restricting countries. It also would bar U.S. companies from selling technology that could be used for the purposes of censorship or surveillance in such countries.

For over a decade, the United States government has sought to promote global Internet freedom, particularly in China and Iran. In 2006, the Bush Administration established the Global Internet Freedom Task Force, which was renamed the NetFreedom Task Force under the Obama Administration. Congress provided $95 million for global Internet freedom programs between 2008 and 2012. The Broadcasting Board of Governors has spent approximately $2 million annually during the past decade to help enable Internet users in China and other Internet-restricting countries to access its websites, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

Some experts argue that support for counter-censorship technology, which has long dominated the U.S. effort to promote global Internet freedom, has had an important but limited impact. Obstacles to Internet freedom in China and elsewhere include not only censorship but also the following: advances in government capabilities to monitor and attack online dissident activity; tight restrictions on social networking; and the lack of popular pressure for greater Internet freedom. As part of a broadening policy approach, the U.S. government has sponsored a widening range of Internet freedom programs, including censorship circumvention technology; privacy protection and online security; training civil society groups in effective uses of the Web for communications, organizational, and advocacy purposes; and spreading awareness of Internet freedom.

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