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Internet Free Trade Zone

Stefan Hammond (Computerworld HK) | Oct. 10, 2013
The Shanghai Free Trade Zone is now open for business. But how open is the FTZ's Internet access?

The Shanghai Free Trade Zone is now open for business. But how open is the FTZ's Internet access?

There were rumors that Facebook, Twitter, and the Web site of the New York Times would be unblocked within the FTZ. That would contrast against other provinces in China—the BBC reported earlier this month that "Chinese officials have issued new guidelines that could see internet users jailed for writing posts that spread rumours online [according to] state media."

"Internet users who make defamatory comments which are visited by 5,000 users or reposted more than 500 times could face up to three years in prison," said the BBC. Just what constitutes a "defamatory comment" remains unclear.

Legally protected speech
Freedom-of-speech is never absolute. The maxim about yelling "FIRE!" in a crowded indoor venue remains a prime example. Laws defining and proscribing libel and slander vary by region and country, but in territories with the rule of law, the limits of speech are defined in legal terms.

Legally protected speech on the Net is more complex. Take, for example, the case of 16-year-old Yang Hui from Zhangjiachuan. Bloomberg reports that on September 17: "the teen was summoned from his afternoon math class by his junior high school's vice-principal, according to an account the student provided to the state-owned Beijing News newspaper. Three plainclothes and a uniformed police officer were waiting in the principal's office. They asked for his phone, interrogated him, conveyed him to the police station for further questioning and then locked him up in a local detention center."

His apparent crime? He was re-tweeted. The story's complex and illuminating, and I refer you to the Adam Minter article on Bloomberg for the tale of Yang. It ends with this: "Zhangjiachuan is a small, unimportant locality far from Beijing. Punishing its officials—and freeing its junior-high students—means almost nothing to national leaders who have spent the last two months tightening their control of the Internet."

Net restrictions = business restrictions
The Internet is the most powerful new business tool of the current century. It will continue to evolve and create new business models. Case-in-point: 3D-printing technology that can create anything from bicycle parts to custom-designed casts for broken limbs. Open-source CAD files online can be downloaded, modified, and printed locally using plastic resin.

But for such business opportunities to flourish, the Net must be free and open. And there seems little evidence that the Chinese authorities are prepared to accept that—within or without the Shanghai FTZ.

A September 26 article in the state-run Global Times spells it out. "No special access to banned websites at free trade zone in Shanghai," reads the headline. The article begins with: "The management measures over the Internet at the China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone will be consistent with the rest of the country's, official sources were quoted by the news portal as saying."


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