Can government stop Internet freedom?

While earthquakes, health care reform and Tiger Woods have dominated mainstream news in the last months, there’s another story that has been steadily making waves in the international and online world — Google vs. China.

In January, Google claimed to be the victim of a hacking attack that originated from computers in China. In response, it decided to go against a 2006 deal it had with the Communist country and no longer filtered search results on the Chinese version of its website.

China retaliated by demanding stronger filters and threatened to block Google from its citizens. Most recently Google made its final push for power in the struggle by rerouting all Chinese searches through its uncensored Hong Kong servers, effectively bypassing Chinese filters.

Although China could simply block any Chinese user from accessing the Hong Kong servers, that is besides the point. Google’s actions have shown how far the company is willing to fight for Internet freedom.

The Internet has been in a kind of limbo with lawmakers and companies — they don’t know how to treat it. It’s a tool for social networking and mass communication, yet it’s also a host for television and music. Plus it’s full of information, from published resources including PEW studies, articles from major magazines and participatory websites like Wikipedia.

Because it is a medium in which freedom of speech can run rampant, governments such as China’s are attempting to manipulate or suppress information on the web. They have blocked websites that discuss the Tiananmen Square protests, the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual sect and even social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

China’s actions cut off communication with millions of people and tried to rewrite cultural perceptions through information and meme control. The Internet is just a modern form of communication, as phones and mail were before it. The idea of censoring the mail is ludicrous, just as censoring the Internet should be.

During the first conflict between China and Google, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about the United States’ Internet policy. Extending the First Amendment to the Internet, she said, “the freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly in cyberspace.”

There is a bit of a gray area when it comes to Internet freedom, though. Google, complying with German law, blocks any pro-Nazi website in the country. Similarly, there are many websites on the web that are from pro-hate and terrorist groups. Should they be repressed or should freedom of speech extend to all users on the Internet?

Like in the real world, people can say what they want — it is actions that are criminal, not speech. So, although we may not agree with what is on the Internet, we should not compromise free speech simply to stop cases here and there.

China blocks social networking sites out of fear that people will share information. That fear isn’t unfounded — just look at what sites like YouTube and Twitter did during Iran’s elections last summer.

The Iranian government kicked all foreign reporters out of the country, yet the citizens still shared videos, articles and pictures through the web.

The Internet served as a platform for mass communication and helped highlight the oppression that occurred in the country.

And even if governments choose to censor sites, people will find a way around it. In China, 384 million people use the Internet, and there is a vibrant illegal file-sharing culture. People have a taste for what the Internet offers, and they are going to try to get more of that, no matter how illegal it may be.

Oppression gives rise to rebellion. In America, file sharing and Wi-Fi hacking emerged out of a desire for free services. Just imagine the ingenuity and efforts going on in China to obtain free and uncensored Internet access.

Thankfully, our government has moved toward promoting Internet freedom. In addition to Clinton’s comments, a bipartisan group of senators formed the Senate Global Internet Freedom Caucus. The group formed soon after the Treasury Department authorized U.S. companies to send social media services and software to other countries to promote global communication.

So, while Google’s war over censorship in China might or might not come out in its favor, Internet freedom is at least being talked about. The more people realize that the Internet is an extension of speech and information, the more they will realize that those should not be censored or oppressed. China may pull the plug on Google, but sooner or later, its hold over the Internet will collapse. There are already dozens of cracks in the levee. The only question is how soon until the dam bursts.

Nicholas Slayton is a freshman majoring in print journalism. His column, “A Series of Tubes,“ runs Thursdays.