November 16, 2009 - Speaking in a country known for its internet censorship policies and heavy-handed government involvement in communications technologies, President Obama repeatedly took the time to voice his support for an “open internet” in Shanghai on Monday.
“So I'm a big supporter of not restricting internet use, internet access, other information technologies like Twitter. The more open we are, the more we can communicate. And it also helps to draw the world together,” said Obama.
“And so I've always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I'm a big supporter of non-censorship. This is part of the tradition of the United States that I discussed before, and I recognize that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet -- or unrestricted internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged,” he continued.
Obama delivered his remarks to four hundred-plus Chinese youth as well as thousands of others who attended the event virtually through events organized by the U.S. Embassy and Consulates. The question related to Internet use was delivered by U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Meade Huntsman, Jr., who asked “‘in a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall?’ And second, ‘should we be able to use Twitter freely’ - is the question.”
Obama said he never uses Twitter, “But I am a big believer in technology and I'm a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information. I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable.”
Obama said at times he wished “information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time.” He also attributed his win as president in part because his campaign was able to mobilize young voters through the Internet.
According to the OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative partnership between four academic institutions including the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, China currently leads the world with 298 million Internet users and about 583.5 million cell phone subscribers.
Over 90 percent of internet users have broadband access. “As the Internet records extraordinary growth in services as well as users, the Chinese government has undertaken to limit access to any content that might potentially undermine the state's control or social stability by pursuing strict supervision of domestic media, delegated liability for online content providers, and increasingly, a propaganda approach to online debate and discussion,” states the initiative’s page on China.
Obama also opted to use the U.S. company Google as an example of why an open internet is needed. “You think about a company like Google that only 20 years ago was – less than 20 years ago was the idea of a couple of people not much older than you. It was a science project. And suddenly because of the Internet, they were able to create an industry that has revolutionized commerce all around the world. So if it had not been for the freedom and the openness that the Internet allows, Google wouldn't exist,” said the president.
Obama’s comments may have been particularly hard-hitting in a country known for its internet censorship, but they also sound very similar to the rhetoric that is being used for the debate in Washington, D.C., about whether the Federal Communications Commission should step in and regulate internet access to ensure an “open internet.”
In China, Obama also noted the downside of technology. It “means that terrorists are able to organize on the Internet in ways that they might not have been able to do before. Extremists can mobilize. And so there's some price that you pay for openness, there's no denying that. But I think that the good outweighs the bad so much that it's better to maintain that openness.”