Privacy Laws and Privacy Levers: Online Surveillance versus Economic Development in the People's Republic of China
43 Pages Posted: 4 Jan 2014
Date Written: December 16, 2013
This essay describes and contextualizes the ongoing efforts by the Communist Party of China (CPC) to reconcile two dramatically competing interests: the desire to extensively monitor the communications of its citizenry, and a burning ambition to further develop its banking and financial industries, its high tech innovation capabilities, and its overall share of the “knowledge economy.” Monitoring and censoring communications, especially via “one to many” social networking platforms, is viewed as essential for the prevention of mass anti-Party political activities ranging from peaceful civil disobedience to armed insurrection and for the protection of the reputations of individual Party leaders. Mobile Internet technologies make electronic surveillance easier, but effective monitoring harder, as keeping track of the content and importance of individual communications requires time and trustworthy judgment calls that cannot be automated or outsourced.
While unbounded surveillance may be a useful tool for keeping control of political subdivisions, it can be very bad for business. Companies want to protect their trade secrets, and control access to their financial data and other proprietary information, and they want to engage in confidential communications. Businesses also want access to the same information and Internet resources as their competitors abroad. The people running China would like to attract and retain all manner of sophisticated business ventures, but simultaneously wish to spy extensively on these companies and on the people who run them. And the Internet access that is generally available is censored and ponderously slow due to the extensive monitoring and filtering technologies that are in place.
The CPC probably can’t have it both ways. If secure communication channels are not consistently available to private sector businesses within China, enterprises that value or require confidentiality will limit their in-country transactions. Some foreign companies may avoid doing business there altogether. But permitting credibly unmonitored and unfiltered communications on a scale commensurate with the size of the business community in China will not be a step the CPC takes lightly. Monitoring and censoring communications, especially via “one-to-many” social networking platforms, is viewed as essential for the prevention of mass anti-Party political activities ranging from peaceful civil disobedience to armed insurrection; and to protect the reputations of individual Party leaders.
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