In the wake of Google’s threat to pull out of China following its discovery of a coordinated Chinese cyber attack on its software coding and a large number of email accounts (for a useful run-down of the whole story and associated content, click here), the US State Department (and the irrepressible Ms. Clinton) have gone on the attack against the Chinese government’s policy of censoring all content it deems pornographic, anti-social, or politically subversive. The Chinese government, in turn, has accused the United States of “information imperialism.” The Globe and Mail reports today that the Communist Party-sponsored Global Times writes that the West, and the US in particular, emits information “loaded with aggressive rhetoric against those countries that do not follow their lead” over the Internet, thus constituting an attack on Chinese values. (Apparently these treasured values include repression and ignorance.)
Considering the modern meaning of imperialism, the charge is correct. As I have often written, the United States is undoubtedly an imperial power in its acquisition of formal and informal areas of influence, its use of elite collaborators to secure its power, and the very fact that it is seemingly unconscious of its role in the world (as, indeed, Britain was for much of its imperial history). It is the last of this group I’m interested in, as it relates to the Internet. A Western creation that has been popularized by Western businesses and shipped around the world, the Internet is by its very nature disruptive to authoritarian regimes. The whole idea of “Web 1.0” vs. “Web 2.0” finds a useful parallel with authoritarianism and democracy – information and decision-making from the top and centre, vs. grassroots movements from everywhere. Stifled innovation vs. constant improvement. (NB – For another amusing parallel, this time with British “imperialist” big business and the Far East, consider what James Mill of the British East India Company wrote about China in the nineteenth century: culturally obsolete, lazy, prone to mimicry of the elites and thus creative stagnation, etc.) Top down vs. peer-to-peer communication and networking. The Internet is democracy in technological form.
Unfortunately for China, the Internet is essential – and very, very difficult to regulate and restrict. They have to let it in, but are simultaneously trying to keep much of it out. (Similarly, can a political system be partially democratic? One can vote in one’s dog catchers but not have elected leaders?) The strength of the cyber-attack on Google, in fact, may be seen as just more proof of the strength of the Chinese hacking community in response to the “Great Firewall of China” that it needs to breach. Ironically for the US, the Internet has perhaps been the most successful conveyor of the advantages of freedom of speech and information in the Western world – and thus the most powerful weapon advocating these “Western” values – while also being the most “hands off” soft power missile America has in its arsenal. It’s the ideal cultural influencer: create it and let it run itself, sans promotion. The Internet doesn’t need “a government-sponsored campaign to develop international media and influence opinion” like China does. It is appealing and exciting all by itself.
So if it is imperialism, as China suggests, it is unconscious imperialism. It certainly seems a useful complement to all of the other forms the US currently practises. As Sir John Robert Seeley would have it, the Western world has, via the Internet, shifted the way people receive information from a “1.0” to a “2.0” format in “a fit of absence of mind.”