China's right to demonstrate no such thing as absolute online freedom

Chinese government's recent arrests of high-profile bloggers for spreading "online rumors" has been seen as an attempt to silence political whistleblowers, but its actions are comparable to that of the U.S. government's.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

The Chinese government has been keeping busy this past month, passing and enforcing new online regulations that have been described by critics as attempts to police the internet, social media included, and clamp down on political whistleblowers. But, is it any different from how the U.S. government has treated its own whistleblowers? 

And while some have condemned these efforts, others in China welcome the more stringent rules amid an online environment that's becoming unwieldy and increasingly difficult to differentiate truth from lies. 

Earlier this month, China implemented a new judicial interpretation which defined the criteria for convicting and sentencing offenders who spread rumors online. Anyone in the country who shared false information deemed defamatory or to affect national interest would face up to three years in jail if their posts were viewed 5,000 times or forwarded 500 times. 

Chinese authorities swiftly followed up with a slew of arrests that rounded up several high-profile bloggers and users of Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, whose followers numbered in the tens of millions. These "Big Vs", as they are dubbed, included Xue Manxi who appeared on national TV acknowledging his role in reposting unsubstantiated information via his Weibo account, as well as reporter Liu Hu who had shared information which raised questions over government corruption.

Web portals were also charged for carrying what the government deemed was false information about a state-owned company.  

The arrests have unsettled China's vast online community. Zhou Ze, a human rights lawyer with over 165,000 followers on Weibo, said in a Reuters article: "I am really scared now that any whistleblowing might lead to an arrest. We all have to talk less, and more carefully... If rumors can lead to detention or arrest, everyone will fear for themselves and become particularly scared about criticizing officials, which we are seeing less of on the Internet."

A Chinese blogger I spoke with said others were choosing to pay little attention to the new "re-tweeting" regulation, with some Big Vs jokingly instructing their Weibo followers to retweet their updates only 499 times--one short of the 500 stipulated under the directive. 

He described the government's recent moves as part of its efforts to exert more stringent control over social media platforms, and he said he doesn't welcome it. 

There is, however, some support for stronger action against those who persist in posting unsubstantiated information online. 

Another Beijing-based blogger I spoke with welcomed the recent clampdown: "As a Weibo user, I have to say that I support the crackdown this time as Weibo has gradually become a place from where all the false news originate and spread. I used to follow a couple of Weibo accounts who had huge [number of] followers, but I realized they were intentionally making up news or forwarding information that was apparently untrue. It made me uncomfortable and I decided not to follow them anymore."

He underscored the importance of Weibo as a platform on which "ordinary Chinese citizens" can expose illegal acts, in particular, government corruption. He said he supported these, adding that most in China also do. However, people who exploit public discontent and make up falsehoods, "either in ill faith or for profits", deserve the punishment meted down by the government, he added. 

He's not wrong. Freedom of expression cannot mean anyone is free to make allegations based on lies and unsubstantiated facts. It can affect someone else's well-being and it can disrupt societal harmony. Imagine the chaos a blogger with tens of millions of followers can trigger if just half of them decide to act upon a post about a supposedly corrupt official that later turned out to be untrue. 

The U.S. government itself has acted to punish whistleblowers, even when they were exposing the truth. The man behind Wikileaks, Bradley Manning, was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment, and Edward Snowden remains a fugitive for his role in leaking documents revealing massive global Internet surveillance programs by the U.S. National Security Agency.

Like the Chinese government, the U.S. government had defended its actions citing national interest. And like the Chinese, the U.S. has claimed no wrongdoing despite criticisms from several governments including Europe over the violation of the fundamental right to privacy and data protection. 

No such thing as absolute freedom of expression

A standard reading during my university days when I studied journalism was the Four Theories of the Press, which outlined the main systems on which the media operate: authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility, and soviet communist. 

Discussing the libertarian system, the authors wrote: "The most persistent problem facing democratic societies is determining proper limitations to freedom of expression in the mass media." They further note the greatest flaw in the libertarian system is its failure to provide high standards of the mass media, and inability to distinguish liberty from the abuse of liberty. This system also fails to recognize the "self-righting" process does not always happen.

Published in 1956, the book's reference to mass media today would very well refer to the online social media and bloggers. 

China bloggers
How much of its internet and social media community can the Chinese government regulate?

There is no absolute freedom of expression when this freedom is fraught with lies and anyone should be accountable for untruthful expression. And as the U.S. government clearly believes, there is no freedom of expression when it deems the expression to be against national interests. 

So, does that mean governments get free rein? Not exactly, and going too far with their restrictions will create worse outcomes.  

"It's important that those who spread slander are held legally responsible," Peng Jian said in the Reuters report, a lawyer with over 100,000 Weibo followers. "But if it's not implemented properly, it could suppress freedom of expression."

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, commented in a CNN report: "You have a need to regulate the Internet... There are a lot of unsavory things happening in China, such as unscrupulous PR companies mounting campaigns against another company just to offer their service to put an end to it.

"But the best disinfectant is sunlight. If you have a free press, then these rumors just get dragged out naturally," Bequelin said, noting that many Chinese citizens tended not to trust state-run media to unravel any wrongdoing on the government's part and, hence, turned to online platforms. 

It's a phenomenon that's also true here in Singapore, where most don't see mainstream media always as reliable vehicles for exposing political...uh-hum, mishaps, and turn to online alternatives. While some of these alternatives are less than credible, posting information that are often unsubstantiated, more savvy Singaporeans have learnt to distinguish lies from the truth. 

Like the Chinese government, the Singapore government also has introduced new regulations which have been widely seen as a way to stifle online freedom--though not to the extent seen recently in China. I've spoken about these in previous blogposts so I won't repeat myself here--suffice to say I'm a strong supporter of letting basic legislation, and the judiciary laws of defamation and libel guide the online community. Many of these already exist to enable governments and citizens to take the necessary action against defamatory content and false rumors online, so there's little need for any heavy-handedness on the government's part. 

China is right to demonstrate there are repercussions when bloggers are unscrupulous and untruthful about what they say online, especially when they have vast followers. But, these rules should be unambiguous, transparent, and consistent. The government also needs to realize there is a limit to how far it can regulate social media, especially when the country has an online population of over 591 million, 80 percent of whom surf via a mobile device. 

Besides, no amount of legislation can fully regulate a platform that simply cannot be regulated, in theory or in practice. 

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States.

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