Thomas Lum, Coordinator
Acting Section Research Manager/Specialist in Asian Affairs
Patricia Moloney Figliola
Specialist in Internet and Telecommunications Policy
Matthew C. Weed
Analyst in Foreign Policy Legislation
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.
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 Internetrestricting 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.
Date of Report: July 13, 2012
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R42601
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