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New Threats to Freedom
By Adam Bellow
Templeton PressCopyright © 2010 Templeton Press
All rights reserved.
The Decline of American Press Freedom
In 1949, when George Orwell wrote his dystopian novel 1984, he gave its hero, Winston Smith, a job at the Ministry of Truth. All day long, Winston clips politically unacceptable facts, stuffs them into little pneumatic tubes, and then pushes the tubes down a chute. Beside him sits a woman in charge of finding and erasing the names of people who have been "vaporized." And their office, Orwell wrote, "with its fifty workers or thereabouts, was only one sub-section, a single cell, as it were, in the huge complexity of the Records Department."
It's odd to read 1984 in 2010, because it makes one realize that the politics of Orwell's vision aren't at all outdated. There are still plenty of governments in the world that go to extraordinary lengths to shape what their citizens read, think, and say, just like Orwell's Big Brother. But the technology envisioned in 1984 is so—well—1980s. Paper? Pneumatic tubes? Nowadays, none of that is necessary: it can all be done electronically, or through telephone calls, or using commercial pressure. In the modern world, censorship can take many forms, even reaching across international boundaries. And it has already begun to affect the American press, and American publishing, far more than is commonly understood.
To see what I mean, look closely at a decision taken by Yale University Press in the summer of 2009. Deep in the month of August, its editors quietly issued a statement confirming that there would be a change to the content of one of their forthcoming books, The Cartoons that Shook the World. The book was a scholarly account of the international controversy that followed a Danish newspaper's 2005 publication of twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The book contained a significant amount of new material. Among other things, the Danish author, Jytte Klausen, argued that the controversy had been manipulated by Danish imams who showed their followers false, sexually offensive depictions of Mohammed alongside the real ones, which were not inherently offensive at all.
She also argued that others—including the Egyptian government—used the cartoons to create "outrage" in the form of riots, boycotts, and anti-Danish protests, which they deployed for their own political ends. She consulted with several Muslim scholars who agreed that the protests were not evidence of authentic Muslim religious anger, but were rather political games. Later, she would write that she had "good reason" to believe that the publication of the cartoons need not have been interpreted offensively, and that republication of them by a scholarly press was not threatening or dangerous.
Nevertheless, the Yale press, "after careful consideration," decided not to publish the cartoons. In a statement, the normally independent press declared that it had consulted Yale University, and that the university had in turn consulted "counterterrorism officials in the United States and in the United Kingdom, U.S. diplomats who had served as ambassadors in the Middle East, foreign ambassadors from Muslim countries, the top Muslim official at the United Nations, and senior scholars in Islamic studies." To the intense disappointment of Klausen as well as of the book's original editor—who had himself consulted lawyers and who supported printing the book—the university decided that the risk of terrorism was too great to allow the publication of the twelve cartoons.
Predictably, a minor controversy ensued. Some Yale alumni, myself included, signed a letter of protest. The New York Times and others printed angry criticism. But the university stuck to its decision, citing fears of violence and possible terrorist attacks on the Yale campus. John Negroponte, former CIA director, former ambassador to Baghdad, and class of '60, even applauded the Yale press for its "brave" refusal to print the images.
Equally predictably, the story faded. But Yale's decision to bow to pressure from unnamed and unknowable terrorists has further consequences. Although there was no direct threat—just a fear that someone, someday, might present one—the university has now set a standard for others. Yale's press is one of the best in the country: if its editors won't publish the Danish cartoons, why should anyone else? Indeed, one of Yale's strongest and most frequently cited arguments for not publishing the cartoons was the fact that most major U.S. newspapers refused to publish them in 2005. Now the bar is higher: if not only the New York Times, not only the Washington Post, but even Yale University Press refuse to publish them, then that makes it much harder for anybody else to treat the cartoon controversy as a legitimate matter for scholarly and political debate.
But Yale's decision was not an unusual one either. On the contrary, it is only one of a number of recent incidents that illustrate the increasing power of illiberal groups and regimes—not only Islamic terrorists but authoritarian foreign governments and the companies aligned with them—to place de facto controls on American publishers, newspapers, and media companies, constraining once-sacred American rights to free speech, and once-inviolable American traditions of press freedom.
Indeed, the vague threat of "terrorism" is only one tool that foreign entities use to control free speech, and it is not necessarily the most powerful. Yale's decision attracted a good deal of attention, but in fact the university was merely cowardly. It thought it was acting in the interests of its students' safety. By contrast, the motives of other Americans who have lately tried to suppress information on behalf of foreign entities are often murkier.
A case in point is another decision, also taken in the summer of 2009. At that time, GQ magazine was debating whether it should publish an article titled "Vladimir Putin's Dark Rise to Power," by Scott Anderson. The article, based on extensive reporting, argued that Russian security services had helped plan and execute a series of bomb explosions in Moscow in 2000. These explosions, which killed dozens of people, were blamed on Chechen terrorists. Subsequently, then-Russian president Vladimir Putin also used the explosions as a justification for the launch of the second Chechen war.
So conveniently timed were these terrorist attacks, in fact, that even at the time many in Moscow suspected the secret services had a hand in them, and much circumstantial evidence is available to support this thesis. Nevertheless, in Russia, discussion of this evidence remains officially taboo. Obviously, if Russian special forces acting on the authority of the Russian president were involved in killing Russian citizens, this is a very controversial matter indeed.
Eventually, Anderson's article making this case did appear in the September 2009 American edition of the magazine, but not anywhere else. Condé Nast, the U.S. media company that owns GQ, banned the article from appearing in the magazine's Russian edition, banned it from appearing in other foreign editions, and banned it from appearing on any Condé Nast website. In addition, the company ordered all of its magazines and affiliates around the world—magazines such as the New Yorker and Wired, among others—to refrain from mentioning or promoting the article in any way. In an e-mail sent to senior editors and later quoted by National Public Radio, company lawyers even forbade company employees to physically carry the U.S. edition of the magazine into Russia or to show it to any Russian government officials, journalists, or advertisers.
Clearly, Condé Nast's motives had nothing to do with security, and everything to do with Russian advertisers, many of whom are one way or another linked to the Russian government. And of course the company was made to look foolish: within days, Anderson's article was scanned, translated, and published in English and Russian on multiple websites. But perhaps that didn't matter. What Condé Nast seems to have wanted was to appear to be groveling before their Russian subscribers and advertisers.
In this, they succeeded. And, as in the case of Yale's decision, Condé Nast's humiliating act of self-censorship sets a precedent. If one of the largest and richest media companies in the country is not willing to take the chance of offending Putin, why should anyone else? The same, of course, is true for Russians: if American journalists writing about Russia in American publications cannot feel confident that their work will be supported, why should Russians, who risk so much more, feel any braver? Ultimately, a tame, censored Russian press is a disaster for the American companies that work in Russia and Americans who live there, since such a press will not dare to expose the culture of corruption that makes doing business in Russia so difficult for foreigners. But clearly, Condé Nast wasn't thinking that far down the line.
None of these flirtations with censorship compares, however, with the lengths to which American companies have been persuaded to go in aiding and abetting censorship in China. Once upon a time, visionaries predicted that, in the twenty-first century, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes would no longer be able to operate, so overwhelmed would they be by the flood of free information available on the Internet. China in particular was often cited as the perfect example, a place where free markets would bring free information that would ultimately destroy the communist regime.
If it hasn't worked out that way, the fault lies partly in the decisions of some of America's best-known media and software companies, many of which have collaborated with the Chinese government's increasingly sophisticated Internet censorship regime for much of the past decade. In fact, the "Great Firewall," the vast Chinese Internet filter, was originally created with the help of Cisco Systems, an American company. Among other things, Cisco provided the Chinese government with technology designed to block traffic to individual pages within a particular website, so that you can read about Tibet's architectural heritage and never know you missed the description of the Dalai Lama at all. Cisco shows no remorse: in a 2005 interview, a company spokesman told me that this is the "same equipment technology that your local library uses to block pornography," and besides, "We're not doing anything illegal."
Others have also complied. Since 2002, Yahoo! has been voluntarily controlling its own search engine in China. The company signed a "public pledge of self-discipline" when it entered the Chinese market, in exchange for being allowed to place its servers on the Chinese mainland. At around the same time, Microsoft agreed to alter the Chinese version of its blog tool, MSN Spaces, at the behest of the Chinese government. In practice, this means that Chinese bloggers who try to post a forbidden word—"Tiananmen," say, or "democracy"—receive a warning stating that "this message contains a banned expression, please delete."
After much agonizing, mighty Google also joined them. The company had been operating a Chinese version of google.com, with U.S. based servers, for many years. But the service was difficult for ordinary Chinese users to access, so in 2006, the company decided to launch Google.cn. In order to be allowed to do so, it too pledged to abide by Chinese rules on banned websites. Anywhere else in the world, type the name of "Falun Gong," the banned Chinese spiritual movement, into Google, and thousands of results, chat rooms, and blogs turn up. On Google.cn, "Falun Gong" produces nothing.
What has been the result of this American compliance with Chinese edicts? Far from appeasing the regime, it appears to have emboldened the Chinese government to expand its censorship program. Pressure has been put on individual companies: in 2005, the Chinese government demanded that Yahoo! hand over the e-mail account information of a Chinese journalist who had leaked documents to a U.S.-based website—documents describing Chinese restrictions on media coverage of the fifteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising. Yahoo! agreed to help; the journalist received a ten-year jail sentence for "leaking state secrets."
At about the same time, the Chinese government also demanded that Microsoft delete the writings of a free-speech advocate from its blog software. Microsoft complied with this request also, even though the company's servers are based in the United States. In other words, a Chinese government demand had forced an American company to change information on American servers based on American soil, possibly setting a precedent.
Since then, pressure has expanded over the system as a whole. Throughout 2009, U.S. sites such as YouTube (owned by Google) or Flickr (owned by Yahoo!) suddenly and inexplicably disappeared from Chinese servers, usually at a time when some politically sensitive event was taking place in China. (YouTube could not be viewed in China for many months, for example, after videos of Chinese soldiers beating Uighur demonstrators in the rebellious province of Xinjiang began to circulate on the service.)
More generalized harassment has also been directed at Google, which in the summer of 2009 was accused of "spreading pornography." As a result, both of its sites, google.cn and google.com in Chinese, were completely blocked. Off the record, the company suspects that the real source of these accusations is its main Chinese competitor, Baidu, which of course benefits directly whenever Google suffers from technical difficulties. But in the murky and corrupt world of Chinese business and politics—made murkier and more corrupt by the lack of a completely free press—this accusation was difficult to prove.
In June 2009, the Chinese made an attempt to go even further. The government issued orders requiring all personal computers sold in the country to include a special form of filtering software, Green Dam, designed to filter out "unhealthy information" from the Internet. Allegedly aimed, once again, at "pornography," the software would have allowed the government to access its citizens' individual computers, preventing them from reading a constantly updated list of banned websites. It would also have allowed the government to monitor the browsing habits of individuals. "It's like downloading spyware onto your computer," one Hong Kong Internet expert explained, "but the government is the spy."
Full of bugs, and liable to freeze screens, Green Dam would have made all personal computers more difficult to use in general. As if that were not enough, the time allotted to load the software onto new computers was very short—the original deadline gave manufacturers one month—which presented enormous technical problems to any hardware company selling in China. Nevertheless, two companies—Lenovo, based in China, and Acer, based in Taiwan—complied.
In this case, however, the U.S. companies—computer hardware companies this time, and not merely makers of software and search engines—decided to fight back. Acting as a group, they went to the U.S. trade representative and the commerce secretary, who in turn protested to the Chinese government and threatened to take the issue to the World Trade Organization. After a few weeks, the Chinese government backed off. Although Green Dam remains mandatory in Chinese schools and in Internet cafes, personal computers are not forced to use it—at least not yet. But although that story ended more or less happily, it is worth pausing for a moment to imagine what would have happened had those U.S. companies not banded together, and had they not protested the Chinese government's demands. The software would have been loaded; everyone in China would eventually be forced to use a computer containing government spyware; and the Chinese government would have been strengthened, once again, in its resolve to force foreign companies to collaborate in the mass censorship and limitations on free speech that it places on its own people. U.S. companies would have maintained their ability to sell in China, but over time might well have lost out to the Chinese companies, which are more willing to work closely with the Chinese government to get the results it wants.
And, in the winter of 2010, another crisis showed exactly how this can and will happen: in January, Google announced its intention to pull out of China altogether. The company said that it had been subject to an extraordinary series of cyber-attacks, aimed at entering and spying on the company's servers—as well as gaining access to the email accounts of Chinese and Tibetan dissidents. The company decided to take a principled stand on the issue: its CEO, Eric Schmidt, told Newsweek that "this was not a business decision." But, in fact, it was not clear whether Google's announcement was made for moral reasons, or because Chinese cyberhacks threaten the company's critical intellectual property—software codes, documents—as well as its reputation for security.
Excerpted from New Threats to Freedom by Adam Bellow. Copyright © 2010 Templeton Press. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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