The new Cold War – is an ‘information curtain’ about to descend?

22 Jan 2010

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China angrily rebuffed criticism yesterday by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her speech in which she called for a thorough investigation into the hacking of human rights activists’ email accounts.

“In an interconnected world, an attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all,” Clinton had said. Her speech comes in the wake of last week’s alleged cyber attacks from inside China on internet search giant Google’s servers and those of 20 other international firms where attempts were made to access Gmail accounts of human rights activists.

Google may exit China

Google last week threatened to leave China over the alleged hacking attempts. The company is conducting an internal investigation into whether Google staff in China were complicit with the Chinese authorities in accessing its servers.

China is understood to operate a massive surveillance system known as the ‘Great Firewall of China’ and it is estimated the country has 30,000 or more "internet police" who monitor offending content, such as pornography or political comment under what is known as the ‘Golden Shield Project’.

“Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation.”

Echoing former British prime minister Winston Churchill, Clinton likened online censorship in countries like China, Vietnam and Iran to the rise of communism in Europe and said there’s a threat of the rise of a new “information curtain” that could descend on the world.

China’s response

However, China is having none of this and said today that US calls for greater internet freedom could damage bilateral ties between the world’s first- and second-biggest economies.

“The US has criticised China’s policies to administer the internet and insinuated that China restricts internet freedom,” foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement.

“This runs contrary to the facts and is harmful to China-US relations. We urge the United States to respect the facts and cease using so-called internet freedom to make groundless accusations against China.”

The internet censorship issue is just one of a mounting number of disputes affecting relations between the US and China, including Iran’s nuclear programme.

If companies like Google and Yahoo! do pull out of China, its sphere of influence is enough to see almost two worlds or two versions of the internet emerge and indeed an information curtain could be possible.

Nearly 340 million people in China are now online, compared with 10 million only a decade ago.

By John Kennedy

Photo: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com