Op Ed: Han Han and Lessons for the US

Han Han is China's most popular blogger. As a fellow blogger, I envy his millions of page views. As an average male, I envy hobbies which would serve as full-time endeavours for less energized individuals (race car driver and best-selling novelist) and his financial security. What I don't envy is his inability to speak his mind without allusions and the cat and mouse games he has to play with censors. I don't envy the very real threat he faces of having his blog shut down without any notice. And I certainly don't envy the fact that if Mr. Han were to run too far afoul of the authorities, site shutdowns may be the least of his troubles in a country where prison is often seen as a viable means of controlling dissent.

I, similar to any writer whose web-based work can be found nearly effortlessly by a colleague, relative, or future employer of course self-censor to some extent. I try to be provocative without being inflammatory. I try to stay above the mud-slinging level in political issues (which ironically very likely costs me page views in our hyper-polarized society) and attempt to give both sides of an issue, even if my instincts tilt more heavily in one direction than another.

However, this is not due to fear of government reprisal. As far as I know, there have not been any cases of government shutdowns of sites purely on speech grounds in the US (not counting situations where individuals equate allegedly pirated materials or unauthorized logos to speech). As a result I have never posted anything with the fear that the content could be removed or the entire site shut down as a result. This is emblematic of the general idea that, to this point, the internet has served as the ultimate forum for freedom of speech. I, and many other content users and developers, tend to think this is a very good thing.

It is the erosion of this freedom which is so concerning to many people in the face of some of the recent internet regulation legislation that has been proposed, debated and voted upon at both the state and federal levels. While it might on its face seem innocuous to give the government the freedom to restrict access to the internet, or to prosecute individuals who use malicious language in commenting forums, it is very disturbing that some of the offenses which have been described in various bills have been so broadly defined.

Why? History has shown that law enforcement officials in the US don't do a great job of not using power which they have been granted. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We live in a very safe society, and while I appreciate being able to post without reprisal, I also appreciate being able to walk down most streets in America without too much fear of danger. Many (though regrettably not all) Americans can say the same. A lot of this has to do with law enforcement using, and often testing the outer boundaries of, the tools it has been granted by the government and courts very effectively.

However, the past decade in particular has shown that once freedoms are given up, they are nearly impossible to claw back. The PATRIOT ACT provides a perfect example of this. Though it faced widespread opposition, particularly from some quarters of the Democratic party, when it was passed by President Bush, it was much more quietly extended by that party's own representative President Obama last year. Has the PATRIOT ACT made America safer? Has the increased surveillance decreased attacks on the nation? Maybe, but the topic certainly isn't up for debate any longer, and what were seen as heightened levels of surveillance and interference in the activities of citizens in 2001 are now the new baselines in any new actions or legislation.

Despite this, it is not law enforcement that Americans have to fear in the case of internet freedom. If the public gives law enforcement officials tools to do a job, they will do it well. The PATRIOT ACT, whether you are for or against it, serves as a case in point. Therefore it is rather the American people themselves, through elected officials, who need to maintain vigilance in the area of internet freedom. Though I want law enforcement to do a good job with the tools they have been given, there are areas which the public can choose to not hand tools to law enforcement in the first place. I believe the internet should be one of them. For if America starts to go down that path, I fear that it will be nearly impossible to turn back from it. In slightly more colorful terms, the erosion of a river bank can be just as devastating if it happens during one storm or over the course of a few seasons.

If citizens allow internet regulation legislation to move forward, especially without strong controls on what will or will not be allowed by various laws under consideration, there may end up being no limit on the restrictions which could be placed on speech. If that is the case, despite all of the areas of his life I now claim to envy, I may someday have more in common with the less enviable parts of Mr. Han's life than I would like.

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