The Myopia of excluding censors: The tale of a self-defeating petition

Closing US borders in the name of openness does not create more freedom, but creates more divisions, writes author.

Internet tech conferences bring together people who have opposing views to offer up insights or knowledge [AFP]

In the last week, thousands of people have signed a petition on titled, “People who help internet censorship, builders of Great Firewall in China for example, should be denied entry to the US”. 

The petition proposes that the United States deny entry for people who “use their skills and technology for blocking people to use internet”. It goes on to say that “as a responsible government [that] has always valued freedom, it [sic] reasonable to deny it”. 

This petition is a horrible idea and I hope it does not gain anywhere close to the 100,000 signatures needed by February 24 for the petition to trigger a White House response. 

I came across the petition on Libtech, a great listserv out of the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. The person who circulated this petition works on “Internet Freedom” at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor (DRL) of the US State Department. 

I am shocked that someone from the US State Department is circulating this petition, listing their affiliation, and making it appear as if the US State Department approved the petition. This person forwarded it to the listserv without a disclaimer that circulation does not suggest US government’s endorsement. This person also pointed out that the petition needs 92,204 more signatures to reach its goal. While this person did not explicitly endorse the petition, these actions suggest endorsement. 

But even more troubling than a semi-official circulation is the idea that we should be denying people the opportunity to enter the US because they are associated with censorship. 

Public face of censorship

How do we even define someone as a person “who help(s) internet censorship” and is a “builder of the Great Firewall”? Fang Binxing is the architect of China’s extensive censorship network, widely known as the “Father of China’s Great Firewall”. This petition would deny him entry into the US. 

But Fang Binxing is only one person who has become the public face of censorship. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) oversees and implements filtering software. Would anyone associated with the MIIT be banned from coming into the US?   

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The MIIT oversees the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). Often referred to as the equivalent of the US’ FCC, CNNIC manages administrative affairs such as domain registry and anti-phishing. CNNIC also has a research arm that is similar to the Pew Internet Research Center, producing statistical reports about the Chinese internet that researchers and journalists often cite. 

I spent a summer as a National Science Foundation Fellow doing ethnographic fieldwork at CNNIC in Beijing. The people who oversaw CNNIC relished the chances they had to go to conferences outside of China. Conferences provided CNNIC officials an important source of firsthand information and experience of the world beyond China. 

One of the most important things I learned from my time at CNNIC is that these people whom we call “censors” are much more aware of the world than we in the West often portray them to be. This should inform policy decisions to maintain open exchanges with officials who oversee the Chinese internet. 

This petition would deny all CNNIC researchers and officials the opportunity to come to the US for conferences and events. Such a petition is backwards. We should be encouraging Fang Binxing to come to the US. He should witness what a society with limited censorship looks like and be a part of the discussions about internet freedom at internet governance conferences. 

Internet tech conferences are a lot like track two diplomacy. They bring together people who have opposing views to offer up insights or knowledge. 

Just as much as it is important for officials from authoritarian regimes to attend conferences in the US, it is also important for Americans to go to conferences that are held in authoritarian regimes. 

Internet freedom conferences

In 2005, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held in Tunisia, an authoritarian society at the time. In 2012, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was held in Azerbaijan, still an authoritarian society. 

Would we want these very same countries to turn around and deny US citizens the opportunity to enter just because we engage in anti-censorship practices? 

Sarah Kendzior argues that there is a very good reason why internet policy conferences are held in authoritarian states. 

In her article, she points to editorials that asked why a conference on internet freedom was taking place in a dictatorship. Kendzior argues that internet freedom conferences should always take place in authoritarian regimes because to do so holds all stakeholders accountable, “such a gathering holds accountable the claims of all sides – the Azerbaijani government, which proclaims to promote free speech while punishing those who speak freely; the international media, which decries the choice of host country while ignoring it otherwise; and the delegates, whose newfound willingness to help Azerbaijanis needs to be borne out in practice”. 

In the same way that these forums raise awareness of a host country’s issues, visits to the US could do the same for Chinese officials. Increased contact with people and places outside of one’s own authoritarian regime is an excellent opportunity for government officials to understand what a much less censored society looks like

Here’s the thing, just as much as many in the US find it hard to imagine living in a censored society, it is even harder for people who grow up in a censored society to imagine what a largely open society looks like. And it is very likely that officials, like Fang Binxing, who grow up in a family with close ties to the party bureaucracy, have been indoctrinated with regime theory from a young age. The worst thing we could do is to create policy that prevents them from seeing and experiencing other countries’ policies and perspectives. 

Even though this petition has not yet gained traction, it is still troubling that some people thought this was a good idea. Closing our borders in the name of openness does not create more freedom; it only creates more divisions.

Tricia Wang is a China- and US-based cultural sociologist who uses a range of ethnographic methods to create commercially relevant insights about people’s interaction with the internet. Her writing and talks are available here.

Follow her on Twitter: @triciawang