Sunday, December 11, 2005

Back from China: A riff on freedom of information

Now that I've been back for 48 hours, I can share the following observation:

Soon after publishing some recent observations on China, and in particular the challenges it faces, there were unmistakeable signs that my email was being monitored. For two days after the last dispatch, I was cut off. After that, it was really slow, and a number of emails never reached their intended recipients. I was only able to check my servers at home by using aliases and alternative login protocols. A sobering reminder that China is ruled by an authoritiarian and sometimes paranoid regime.

As offensive and frustrating as it was to have this happen, I also found myself wondering how they can waste such enormous resources on monitoring people as harmless as I am. Yes, a lot of the surveillance is automated, but in my case the pattern also betrayed considerable human involvment. Some poor slob was actually taking the time to go through my emails and decide what to let through, and when. What will happen when human labour is no longer dirt cheap? Of course, such surveillance will become more and more expensive. Will it become so expensive that the government has to cut back, or be more selective? Or will technology fill the gap?

There are U.S. technology firms that have eagerly bid on projects to help the Chinese government develop tools to monitor their population. If we take human rights in China seriously, we must institute rules that strictly prohibit U.S. corporations from abetting the government's dictatorial impulses. The current U.S. administration has appropriately blocked sale of critical defense-related technologies to China, but has not done anything to curb the sale or development of tools the Chinese government can use to oppress its own people. It is a remarkable and disturbing omission, especially given our rhetoric about human rights.

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