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News Analysis

In War Against the Internet, China Is Just a Skirmish

Published: January 17, 2010

PARIS — In the beginning, there was one Internet, born from American research and embraced by academics around the world. It was in English and homogeneous, operating according to Western standards of openness.

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It's no surprise that China polices sites like Google.cn, but now nations like France are also cracking down on Internet users.

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As the Internet grew, it became fragmented and linguistically diversified. It developed borders, across which it now works in different ways.

In Spain, for instance, you can share music and movies with virtual impunity; in France, doing that is likely to cost you your Internet connection.

In China, meanwhile, it may soon be nearly impossible to use Google. The company, saying the security of its e-mail had been breached in a campaign to spy on Chinese dissidents, announced last week that it would stop censoring Google.cn, its Chinese Web site, and might have to withdraw from China.

No matter what happens in the fight between Google and Beijing’s leaders, one thing seems clear: the company is not going to be able to turn the clock back to 2006. That year, Google itself helped to fracture the Internet by creating Google.cn.

China is not the only country where Google is bumping up against political or cultural opposition to the laissez-faire practices that Internet companies prefer.

In South Korea last year, Google blocked users of the local version of its YouTube video service from uploading material after the government imposed rules requiring contributors to register with their real names. Ostensibly, the law is intended to curb anonymous abuse that is said to have contributed to suicides, but critics say it stifles political dissent.

In Italy, four Google executives have been charged with privacy violations in a case involving a video posted on YouTube showing schoolboys bullying an autistic classmate. Google says a guilty verdict could make it hard for YouTube to continue operating in Italy, because it might mean the site is responsible for its content; currently YouTube relies on users to flag anything potentially inappropriate.

Different cultural norms are only one barrier to a global Internet. Commerce is another. As the Internet has evolved from a noncommercial communications tool to a hypercommercial media outlet, it has taken on characteristics of the platforms it now rivals or surpasses.

Media companies and governments seem to be increasingly united in the belief that curbing some freedoms is necessary to foster the development of legitimate business on the Internet. But a single global approach to that is unlikely.

France recently enacted a law allowing Internet connections to be cut off if a user is pirating copyrighted material. Germany has rejected that approach, but Britain is watching the outcomes of the law with interest.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is already talking about even tougher measures against file sharing, calling for tests of technology that filters unlicensed music and movies from the Internet.

So far, file sharers have generally been more successful than political dissidents in working their way around Internet restrictions.

Jonathan Zittrain, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, said Google’s move in China could encourage development of technologies to circumvent local restrictions.

“My hope, and expectation, is that Google engineers who might have been a bit halfhearted about implementing censorship mandates in Google.cn could be full-throttle in coming up with ways for Google to be viewed despite any network interruptions between site and user,” Mr. Zittrain wrote on his blog, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.

That would shift the Internet back toward the “information wants to be free” era. But even Google, which has benefited more than any other company from the flourishing of content online, might be unable to fight the momentum of government restrictions, despite its move in China.