There are few examples of immovable objects meeting unstoppable force. One is happening right now in China, where an authoritarian government is trying to control the libertarian Internet. There's no guarantee which will win.
China loves the economic benefits of the Net, but deeply distrusts the freedom of information it provides. Already heavily regulated and monitored by its own army of IT spies, the Chinese Net will now carry only 'healthy' news that is in the 'national and public interest'. This latest crackdown was provoked by a spate of online reports about regional government corruption, leaving no doubt whose health and interests are to be protected — nor what sort of news will be most ruthlessly suppressed. Anyone who disobeys can look forward to many years in prison, with the government already proving itself capable of tracking down anonymous posters to American Web sites.
Irrespective of the human-rights issues, the fallout from such measures can affect us all. The Chinese state is effectively funding a huge laboratory for techniques of state IT control. It is intent on forbidding everything not explicitly allowed, and is actively developing the techniques and tools to enforce that absolute dictat.
As Chinese companies emerge as a global force, they will seek to export these tools. They will find plenty of buyers among those government and commercial organisations worldwide who would love to have Chinese levels of control over their networks. The copyright cartels are never slow to promote restrictive technological ways to maintain their hold on distribution models, while our own government is equally happy to cite terrorism as a wild card that excuses any number of intrusive attacks on our personal freedoms.
Despite being specified in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of speech only exists as long as people are prepared to defend it. This means using that freedom, even when it is uncomfortable. Our parent company operates a substantial news organisation in China; it may be that the best chance of influence comes from engagement, but accusations of hypocrisy cannot be lightly dismissed.
Nevertheless, the actions of the Chinese government are unacceptable to all who believe in freedom, and actively dangerous even to those of us lucky enough to live in places where that belief is ostensibly guaranteed. We must not allow our own masters to import these techniques. And we owe it to the Chinese people to stay informed about their situation and oppose it vigorously wherever we can — for they cannot.