Facilitating open internet across China (Editorial)

One of the most famous photographs in history was taken in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square nearly 34 years ago. It shows a lone protestor standing up to a column of tanks exiting the square the day after Chinese military forces violently put down a peaceful pro-democracy protest in the repressive land.

Though most people can call to mind the iconic image, there are exceedingly few in China who’ve ever had a look at the photo. Because, like so much else in the People’s Republic of China, it is broadly censored.

Someone doing a search for “tank man” on China’s equivalent of Google would come up empty-handed. And Google, of course, is blocked in the world’s most populous nation.

Colloquially, China’s internet censorship is known as the Great Firewall, a play on the Great Wall of China. Imagine if the United States and our Western allies could establish an open internet that the Chinese people could access, freely. Viewing not only tank man, but all manner of other things. Freeing up their internet service – sort of like a contemporary Radio Free Europe, the Cold War-era broadcasts that sent the truth to folks behind the Iron Curtain.

The internet situation in Russia, though not quite as bad, is an awful long way from free.

To be sure, getting around China’s internet censors won’t be easy, but one imagines that the use of satellites could perhaps offer a way to skirt the Great Firewall. Same, too, in Russia. Could Google be a player in this internet-from-space game? How about Elon Musk’s Starlink? Surely the feds could provide some money for such operations.

That said, if we are going to promote an uncensored internet in China and Russia and elsewhere, we’ve got some cleanup of our own to do. The White House has too often been acting as the Internet censor of first resort, moving to have Twitter and Facebook and others take down posts that the administration considers to be “misinformation.” This is not how things are supposed to work in a free society. Unless and until we can all of us – on the left and the right and in between – remember why we long cherished the rights of free speech and free expression, any efforts we make at improving things for those living in China, Russia and other repressive lands will ring hollow.

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