Transport George Orwell's novel 1984- in which a totalitarian Big Brother
government tries to rule citizens' lives and control their thoughts - into the
21st century, and it would look a lot like China today.
Consider what happened this week. Continuing a long battle to curb
what it considers a subversive information source - the Internet - China tightened
its censorship of online news services and bulletin boards.
Major search engines and portals have been ordered to stop posting
unauthorized commentary. Only opinion pieces from government-controlled sources
are allowed. Private individuals and groups must register as "news
organizations" before operating e-mail distribution lists. Anyone who violates
the rules faces prison. Already, China has jailed a journalist for sending text
of a Communist Party memo to foreign websites.
Distressingly, Western companies, notably Yahoo, have cooperated with
the authorities as a price of being allowed to do business in China.
In doing so, they become partners of the totalitarian state. The specter arises
that the Internet, usually assumed to be a catalyst for free speech and democracy,
is becoming a tool for repression. If China is successful, other regimes no
doubt would follow.
China, of course, can't possibly stamp out all material it doesn't want its
citizens to see. Internet use in China is soaring, along with cellphone use
and text messaging. About 8% of China's 1.3 billion people are now Internet
users. Many have proven adept at skirting the most advanced censorship methods
in the world.
At this point, it's anyone's guess how many Chinese will succeed in getting
a free flow of information, and how many will be scared off by government intimidation
or manipulated by censorship and propaganda.
What's more clear is that democratic nations and their companies should not
help China's Thought Police turn the Internet into a platform for Orwellian
Newspeak and Doublethink. However appealing collaboration might seem, they would
eventually find that the world of 1984 was not a pleasant place.