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Internet Censorship

The online war between freedom of speech and internet censorship: part 2

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This is Part Two of a blog on ‘Reconnecting Freedom of Speech’

Part one of this blog addressed some of the challenges facing the United States regarding its confrontation with China in the online information space. The United States faces a multifaceted conflict with China, where both countries seek to protect not only positive but normative interests.

Relative to authoritarian regimes, democratic countries have a number of strengths and weaknesses that can impact their ability to compete effectively.

The United States, by engaging in censorship and trying to control information, is playing to its weaknesses. How then can the United States draw the tiger out of its mountain lair and confront China where it is weak?

A strategy for victory: leveraging the power of democracy

The answer lies in being able to act offensively and leverage the inherent advantages of an open system to spread information that is dangerous to authoritarianism.

As they are easy to subvert, democracies don’t defend against the spread of information very well. However, in an offensive capacity, they can be extraordinarily effective. Though having taken place before the information age, the collapse of the Soviet Union is a fine example.

The U.S. was successfully able to crack open communism’s protective shell and introduce ideas that communist regimes were unprepared to combat, due to their internal contradictions and narrow, hyper-politicized worldview. The United States could adopt a number of policies to repeat this success against China.

Winning the information war against China

Firstly, the United States needs to embrace cyber offensive capabilities. China launches hacking campaigns against the U.S. regularly.

The U.S. government should do likewise against the mechanisms by which digital control is exerted by the Chinese regime. Attacking the systems critical to the function of China’s social credit system, great firewall, internet censorship, and surveillance apparatus would disrupt the communist party’s ability to control information at home and abroad.

Forcing an authoritarian regime to operate in a space that democracies are accustomed to, that space being one where information flows freely, will weaken such regimes by taking them out of a familiar element and reducing their strategic options.

Leveraging China’s surveillance vulnerabilities

As the Chinese military text, the Thirty-Six Stratagems advises, a leader must “entice the tiger to leave its mountain lair,” separating the enemy from their source of power and forcing them to fight in an environment where they are poorly accustomed.

This is what the U.S. could do to China. American hackers could treat the data of Chinese state-owned companies as military targets, with destroying or leaking their data becoming a priority objective.

Any possible avenue of disruption should be explored, particularly what is most destructive to Chinese government systems and data.

The U.S. could also enlist the help of independent hackers by placing bounties and rewards for the takedown of components of China’s surveillance and censorship apparatus, increasing in value as the importance and difficulty of the target increases.

An open internet could weaken the Chinese Communist Party

This does not stop at merely destroying Chinese systems. The United States should also focus on broadcasting the free and open internet to China in ways that entirely circumvent CCP controls.

One emerging technology that will be very useful is Elon Musk’s Starlink. The United States government needs to encourage the development of this and similar technologies, using intelligence and defense agencies to deploy them if China seizes control of the marketplace for such goods and to covertly distribute hardware and software capable of using the internet provided by these networks in China.

The internet, available anywhere in the world by satellite, can be used to circumvent censorship implemented by countries on their domestic networks.

Defending strategic interests at home

Prioritizing a more offensive approach would not mean that the U.S. can completely ignore defense. As Miyamoto Musashi argued, it is to be expected that the enemy will also be trying to avoid being led about.

The United States must prepare itself to parry an unexpected counteroffensive by authoritarian regimes such as China. While for the reasons previously discussed, the U.S. cannot resort to censorship as a broad strategy, there are other methods that can be pursued to strengthen the American position on both a positive and a normative level.

Part of the problem is cultural; the U.S. has embraced norms and practices that have drawn it into censorship within its own society. This can be seen by the Patriot Act, the War on Terror, and attempts by the government to force social media companies to accept liability for the content that users post. The latter is particularly problematic because it pressurizes tech companies into imposing a form of self-censorship.

American policies going forward must reject this approach. Laws against illegal content on the internet should be enforced against individuals by law enforcement agencies in accordance with due process statutes and norms, not through forcing tech companies into pre-emptive thought policing in order for them to avoid liability.

Free speech and big tech

Forcing big tech to be held to the same internet speech standards as the government and treating their platforms as public spaces protected by the first amendment would also be an important step, and would not be without legal precedent. While authoritarian tech companies claim that their status as private platforms protects them, such protection is not unlimited.

In Marsh v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court ruled that religious materials could be handed out on a privately owned town sidewalk, stating that, “Ownership does not always mean absolute dominion.”

The more an owner, for his advantage, opens up his property for use by the public in general, the more do his rights become circumscribed by the statutory and constitutional rights of those who use it. Though cases such as Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner has limited this precedent in some instances, as this is a precedent that could be used to protect efforts by the government to expand free speech to private platforms, especially in the case of monopolies to which few or no alternatives exist.

Challenges on tackling internet censorship

A combination of the pro-China sympathies of big tech and the lack of competition in an increasingly consolidated marketplace essentially makes these companies extensions of Chinese power to varying degrees. Although this must end, the U.S. government cannot simply take over and dictate what can be allowed on certain platforms.

That would amount to authoritarianism in the style of the Chinese Communist Party, but probably less effective at controlling information. Instead, the solution would be to enforce the first amendment upon these platforms so that they cannot serve as an extension of the power of any government, be it Chinese or American.

If these measures sound draconian, if they seem to be putting government interests or people’s constitutional freedoms above private property, then companies are left with the option to break up instead.

This would ensure sufficient market competition, where consumer choice would afford users more alternatives and thus more means to exert pressure on a particular company for supporting authoritarian internet censorship.

Promoting freedom first and foremost

In doing this, the United States can erase the culture of censorship that exists within its own society and build a resistance to its current tendency of embracing internet regulations with Chinese characteristics.

America cannot allow communism to conquer it culturally. It must foster a society where free and open discussion is not only accepted, but encouraged and celebrated. This should galvanize the will of the people to protect what they have from being erased by authoritarian governments and strengthen citizens’ resolve to protect and defend freedom from efforts to impose tyranny.

What freedom and safety have in common

Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Notice the latter part: neither liberty nor safety.

Often portrayed as a dichotomy, freedom and safety frequently go together, at least in the case of democratic countries like the United States. If the first amendment will help us survive the information age, if the United States will defeat communism and authoritarianism once and for all, democracy must come up with an answer to authoritarian regimes’ information warfare, internet censorship, and propaganda operations.

Policies that can uphold free speech online

Since any policy will face inevitable opposition in a democratic country, this will not be easy. However, given enough time and political willpower, a coherent answer to the Chinese vision for the internet can be devised.

If this strategy is implemented effectively and pursued with ruthless dedication, it might even end up being more effective than any policy the Chinese government has yet implemented. Perhaps, instead of banning Chinese censorship and control of the internet, we should declare an all-out war on it. This may be the only way to truly prevent big brother from watching you.

The online arena is an extension of geopolitical struggle and must be treated as such. In this geopolitical competition, the United States must understand its relative strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis authoritarian nations and be willing to reorient its strategy to play to its strengths and compensate for its weaknesses.

Policies such as cyber offense and broadcasting an open internet to China would be essential in ensuring that the U.S. fights on its own terms rather than on China’s.

To protect against Chinese efforts to counter U.S. actions, America needs to take tangible measures to promote online free speech both at home and abroad, holding the government and corporations accountable to secure individual liberties such as the first amendment. This will be an uphill battle, but it is one in which the United States must prevail for the sake of liberty.

Why the United States needs to respond

In conclusion, keeping the prying eyes of government and the power of its censorship away from citizens first requires an understanding that there is more at stake than TikTok. The U.S. finds itself in an all-out geopolitical confrontation with China, and its authoritarian allies. Since appeasement has been tried and failed, the U.S. has no choice but to respond.

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This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.

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