SOPA/PIPA: The Great Firewall of The West? (Updated)

Surely, anyone with the digital means to access a CDT post has by now come across the acronyms SOPA and PIPA. The two bills, framed by lobbyists and supporters as part of a campaign against the theft of intellectual property and counterfeit goods, are the subject of a lot of criticism. As both an effort to raise awareness and an act of protest, many websites worried by the true implications of these bills have chosen to black-out their content today. In terms of awareness, the blackout has been undeniably successful, while the BBC suggests that today’s campaign may have been equally effective as an act of political protest. Also see internet and human rights activist Ethan Zuckerman’s blog for further context and an explanation of the MIT Media Lab’s opposition to the bills.

China, infamous for its methods of controlling online activity and guiding online opinion, has served as ammunition in the battle against SOPA/PIPA. Commentators the world over are pointing to it as an example of the future that SOPA and PIPA might usher in. In a Global Voices post, Weiping Li translates some comments from Mainland China and Taiwan:

“Now they’re copying us to build up a wall. It’s like after climbing over the wall, we then bump into another one. It’s crazy!! (現在等於他們自己也照著我們這樣造個牆,於是我們以後翻牆出去,又被他們的牆牆住[,]這簡直瘋了嗎!)”

On China’s Sina Weibo microblogging service a Chinese Internet user with nickname “gap foreseeable (落差可見)” expresses concern over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which expected to [be] brought to a vote in U.S. House of Representatives before the end of the year. The Chinese government has long been criticized by Americans for obstructing the free flow of information through a filtering system popularly known as the Great Firewall. Now it is Chinese neitzens’ turn to sneer at proposals for a Made-in-America Great Firewall.

An article at Wired.com, one of the websites involved in the blackout campaign, also likens these bills to the situation in China:

We’ve blacked out the headlines on our website homepage today as part of a global internet protest against two radical anti-piracy bills pending in Congress — legislation that threatens to usher in a chilling internet censorship regime here in the U.S. comparable in some ways to China’s “Great Firewall.”

The Dyn.com page explaining why they oppose SOPA also uses the Great Firewall as a warning:

Are you familiar with the Great Firewall Of China? Sometimes referred to as the Golden Shield project, it’s a Chinese government censorship and Internet surveillance project kicked off in 1998 and put into action in 2003. Simply put, it enables the government to restrict what content its citizens can read and view via IP blocking and DNS filtering. If they don’t like a site request a user makes, it won’t get viewed.

Many dismiss what’s happening in China and chalk to up to their communist political system. That could never happen in a free speech-driven, rights for all society like we have in the United States, right?

If the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) introduced this week gets enacted into law, things could change negatively for Americans which is why Dyn opposes the bill.

But is the Great Firewall an accurate parallel to draw in the campaign against these bills? In a sobering blogpost for Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fish points to today’s blackout campaign itself to illustrate the disconnect in using China to warn of the future:

American websites have the right to protest and protect their content because they exist in a country that respect the rule of law. America couldn’t create a “Great Firewall” comparable to China’s, because it wouldn’t be backed by a Chinese-style system where the Communist Party hovers above the law. Comparing the Chinese and American internet is akin to saying that a kitten that scratches furniture and a lion that eats people are both members of the cat family. True, yes, but it completely misses the point.

Update: Echoing comments made by Foreign Policy Isaac Stone Fish, The Los Angeles Times notes that bloggers in China scoff at comparisons between SOPA/PIPA and the Chinese web censorship regime:

“Only an American company could protest the way Wikipedia or Google has to the government,” said Zhao Jing, a closely followed blogger in Beijing who uses the pen name Michael Anti. “A Chinese company would never get away with that.”

Indeed, China’s Internet sector has no choice but to submit to government pressure -– be it by censoring its own users or implementing whatever happens to be the state initiative of the moment (the latest may require the real-ID registration of 250 million micro-blog accounts despite threats to privacy and the cost burden on Web firms).

Another distinction Chinese activists note is that the proposed legislation in Washington is being debated openly in public and ultimately has to adhere to U.S. law. Chinese censorship, on the other hand, operates in an opaque space where no one really knows what’s banned, what isn’t and who is calling the shots.

Similarly, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos highlights the discussion that has emerged on the Chinese Internet:

After Chinese Web users got over the strangeness of hearing Americans debate the merits of screening the Web for objectionable content, they marvelled at the American response. Commentator Liu Qingyan wrote:

We should learn something from the way these American Internet companies protested against SOPA and PIPA. A free and democratic society depends on every one of us caring about politics and fighting for our rights. We will not achieve it by avoiding talk about politics.

There was little expectation that Chinese Web sites would ever band together to express their opposition to censorship: “Baidu, would you dare do something like this?” one asked.

The most eloquent response to the controversy, perhaps, was one that nobody saw at all. Commentator Shi Han wrote about trying to post a comment to Tencent, the giant Chinese portal. “I’ve written a short article about SOPA. But when I tried to put it up, Tencent replied with a message: ‘Your content has not passed review.’”