Former NSA director’s view of the Internet looks a lot like China’s

September 16, 2013

Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA using air quotes at an event earlier this year. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

BEIJING -- Former NSA and CIA Director Michael V. Hayden’s comments on the Internet this weekend in Washington, and his declaration that Gmail is the preferred online service of terrorists, sounded eerily reminiscent of the sort of argument one might hear here in China.

An unregulated Wild West, an electronic Somalia, where anonymity breeds a lawless free-for-all. But at the same time, a useful tool collecting information on enemies of the state, data that the government simply “takes a picture of … for intelligence purposes.”

Hayden portrayed the Internet as a source of danger, a threat to national security severe enough to warrant a level of government intervention and monitoring that might make many citizens uncomfortable. As it happens, this is awfully close to the view that the Chinese Communist Party takes of the Web. While the U.S. and Chinese governments obviously handle it in very different ways, for example with censorship widespread on the Chinese Internet, it's striking to see the similarities in how the two governments seem to think about the Web.

Indeed, on the same day Hayden was speaking in a church across from the White House, a Chinese American blogger and businessmen was making broadly similar points in Beijing as he was paraded on Chinese state-run television, confessing to having abused the freedoms offered by social media.

“It’s not right for [popular bloggers] to behave higher than the law,” Charles Xue said, in handcuffs after his recent arrest. “If there is no moral standard or cost for slander, you can’t manage the Internet. And there are no limits. It becomes a big problem.”

Xue was arrested last month on charges of hiring a prostitute, but many observers link his arrest to a broad crackdown on the Internet and social media underway in China. The views he expounded Sunday -- that the Internet needs to be more closely regulated by the government, and that people abusing its freedoms deserve imprisonment -- probably have less to do with his own views than those of the Chinese government.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that security-minded types across the world feel slightly uncomfortable with the global free-for-all that the Internet represents. It certainly is not a surprise that spy services in both the United States and China also use the Internet to spy on each other, and on their own citizens, when they deem it necessary.

The biggest difference, perhaps, is that Hayden acknowledged in his speech the interplay between security and liberty, and the need to preserve freedom of speech. In China, freedom of speech is one of those “dangerous Western influences” about which the government has reportedly banned official discussion since President Xi Jinping came to power.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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