Penalize businesses that collaborate with government Internet censors…

Too much voting, not enough free press. As we have seen in Iran, that’s the problem bedeviling many would-be democracies worldwide. The people vote with their ballots, the governments vote when the tallies are taking place or later in the streets, and throughout the open flow of information is impeded or neglected as a priority. ...

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584545_090622_rothkopf222.jpg

Too much voting, not enough free press. As we have seen in Iran, that's the problem bedeviling many would-be democracies worldwide. The people vote with their ballots, the governments vote when the tallies are taking place or later in the streets, and throughout the open flow of information is impeded or neglected as a priority. It's also the problem with many of the democracy promotion programs that have been offered up by the United States and the international community during the recent past. It's the formula for what Fareed Zakaria has dubbed "illiberal democracy" and for what citizens in ill-served countries know is sham. 

From Russia to China to Venezuela, you have voting and claims that some form of democracy is operating. But in each case, as in Iran, such claims are undercut by the reality that free speech is being quashed. In just the past few days alone we have seen stories of the Chinese government's regulations requiring that computers sold in that country contain software enabling the government to censor Internet access. The alleged target is pornography but the software also enables the government to block access to sites they deem politically objectionable. Also, today's Wall Street Journal contained a story talking about the sophistication of the Iranian government when it comes to the tools it uses to control Internet access in that country. And we have seen that they are equally comfortable with the blunt instruments of press suppression from expelling journalists to floating bogus stories to beating the opposition to death.

Too much voting, not enough free press. As we have seen in Iran, that’s the problem bedeviling many would-be democracies worldwide. The people vote with their ballots, the governments vote when the tallies are taking place or later in the streets, and throughout the open flow of information is impeded or neglected as a priority. It’s also the problem with many of the democracy promotion programs that have been offered up by the United States and the international community during the recent past. It’s the formula for what Fareed Zakaria has dubbed “illiberal democracy” and for what citizens in ill-served countries know is sham. 

From Russia to China to Venezuela, you have voting and claims that some form of democracy is operating. But in each case, as in Iran, such claims are undercut by the reality that free speech is being quashed. In just the past few days alone we have seen stories of the Chinese government’s regulations requiring that computers sold in that country contain software enabling the government to censor Internet access. The alleged target is pornography but the software also enables the government to block access to sites they deem politically objectionable. Also, today’s Wall Street Journal contained a story talking about the sophistication of the Iranian government when it comes to the tools it uses to control Internet access in that country. And we have seen that they are equally comfortable with the blunt instruments of press suppression from expelling journalists to floating bogus stories to beating the opposition to death.

The U.S. State Department made a demarche to the Chinese protesting the censorship. That’s an encouraging and important step. But we need to go further. Not only do governments need to ratchet up their emphasis on the centrality of a free press to any democracy — and take a stronger stand against those who pretend at representative government — they also need to find a better way to collaborate with and if necessary regulate or impede those companies who provide Internet and other media censors with the technologies and tools they need to do their jobs. It is absolutely appalling that supposedly “enlightened” companies like Google trumpet their saintly behavior on the environment and other PC issues and then work behind the scenes to enable censorship and thus the evisceration of the fundamental human right to access to the truth about their lives.

Outreach and achieving common standards and an agreement to adhere to them would be a good first step. But because ultimately, some businesses will need stronger disincentives not to do business with government censors, we should reflect the centrality of a free press in programs that deny U.S. government contracts to technology, software or consulting companies that enable such suppression. In fact, better still would be an agreement among all democracies to do so. We can start with Europe and NATO and work out from there. Perhaps other forms of international agreements may also be possible. Certainly, we should attempt to advance the idea of the Internet as a free global commons. For those with concerns about pornography, let families rather than governments wield the tools to make those value judgments about content. 

What is clear is that while modern technologies make it much harder for authoritarian regimes control access to information as they once did, they also provide new tools which can corrode and choke off important avenues of expression and information flows. With its diplomatic challenge to China, the Obama administration has indicated a willingness to grapple with this problem. But they and all governments who are supposedly committed to free societies can go much further.

For over two centuries we have believed that the legitimacy of governments derived from the consent of the governed. But, of course, that famous concept does not go far enough. The legitimacy can only be derived from informed consent. Anything less is less than true democracy.

SHADISHD173/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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