The difference between politics and pornography is a social one

作者: Seth Finkelstein 来源: The Guardian

Censorship in China was one of the "opportunities" seen by network router corporation Cisco Systems, according to a presentation leaked just before a hearing of the US Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights. The document (a series of slides from 2002) describes in part the Chinese government's Golden Shield project. One slide lists its goals of stopping network crime, guaranteeing security and services, and to "combat 'Falun Gong' evil religion and other hostiles". The next slide notes "Cisco Opportunities" in planning, construction, training and operational maintenance (see PDF of Cisco presentation).

There has been a longstanding controversy over western corporations collaborating with censorship by authoritarian regimes. Cisco Systems in particular has faced accusations of providing custom hardware for the "Great Firewall of China", charges it has repeatedly denied. So any new evidence of an association between Cisco and China censorship will reopen suspicions about its possible role in enabling repression.

But too much emphasis on investigating the worst possible case can be a distraction. In testimony, Mark Chandler, senior vice-president and general counsel of Cisco, said: "Cisco, however, has not and does not design products to accommodate political censorship. The tools built into our products that enable site filtering are the same the world over, whether sold to governments, companies or network operators."

And the irony of his statement is that to the extent it matters, he's right. That is, whether or not there was ever a special order of censorship machines is a historical curiosity. That question holds on to the view that mass-censorship requires equipment which is extraordinary, atypical, specially made for foreign dictatorships. It would be comforting to believe it wouldn't be like what's used in democracies. But, as Cisco's executive says himself, censorware is "the same the world over".

The tools sold for companies to control workers serve equally well for governments to combat "evil religion". And all can be a lucrative market. So it's understandable that a civil liberties firestorm was created by the revelation of a company viewing government censorship as merely one more customer use case. But from a different angle, what did people expect?

For more than a decade, censorware has been promoted as a way for authorities to restrict the information available to people under their control.

Those prohibitions have been argued to be a market opportunity. However, what's regarded as legitimate authority among parents, employers, or governments, is a social question, not a technological distinction. In reaction to what democracies regard as illegitimate information prohibitions, there have been calls in the US for legislation to restrict corporate sales of technology to governments which have extensive records of violating human rights. The hearing above was even titled Global Internet Freedom: Corporate Responsibility and the Rule of Law. But it's a very complex topic. Businesses based in other countries could rush in to capture the China censorship market, or China's own networking industry might step in.

This is not to claim that no action could be useful. Indeed, the publicity generated by various proposed corporate responsibility laws has raised awareness of the issues. If nothing else, widespread knowledge of how censorware is used in repressing dissent provides moral support for the development and dissemination of anti-censorware systems (in which the difference between uses for politics and for pornography is similarly a social question, and not a technological distinction). Further, scandals where corporations are shown to be working with government censors indicate that battles over internet censorship can be big business. Which then means that the subject is taken far more seriously than shouting matches between activists and moralists.

Moreover, large amounts of money changing hands are a good indication that at least one party is willing to devote extensive resources towards achieving the goal (ie, internet censorship of a country). There's a famous quote by John Gilmore dismissing the possibility of censoring the internet: "The net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it." But what if censorship is in the router? With Cisco's actions, we can now see censorship being sold literally in the routers.

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