Net brutality

One of the great debates of the day in official Washington is over Internet freedom, a notion that wireline, cable TV and, yes, wireless carriers should be neutral on the speed and substance of content on their fat pipes.
To be sure, net neutrality is heady stuff and oh so relative depending on where you sit. In the United States, the spat generally pits broadband giants and Republicans against Silicon Valley behemoths and Democrats.
In China and other repressive regimes, the actors and their actions relative to Internet freedom are frightenly different. In those places, the state-not content, not the broadband carrier-is king. In open societies, we have the luxury of openly arguing over whether the free flow of Internet content to computers and wireless devices should be left to market forces or safeguarded by government.
As the State Department amplifies in its new human-rights report, delivery of and access to Internet content-particularly that which is contrary to ruling authorities-is deemed no less than an attack on the state. “In previous reports we talked about a crackdown here and a crackdown there. What we’re seeing now are efforts to deepen and to expand Internet restrictions,” Barry Lowenkron, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told reporters last week.
Asked to identify the big offender, Lowenkron replied: “I would certainly put at the top of the list in terms of their technology and their efforts, I would put China.”
The Internet and mobile phones can be great enablers of expression and freedom in countries in which there has been little of either for too long. As such, information technology represents a powerful engine for economic development and a tumultuous threat for nations trying to thread the needle by embracing marketplace profits while shunning the marketplace of ideas.
The State Department tells the story of Deng Yongliang, one of the brave Internet essayists in China, who in August was detained in Shandong Province. Authorities let Deng walk a month later, but took his computer hard drive and mobile phone.
Now all Beijing has to worry about are the other 460 million cellphones in service and the 150 million Internet users.


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