The great firewall of China has once again expanded its control of what information can enter the homes of over a billion Chinese citizens. Not even Google is safe from its grasp — the Chinese government cut off access to Google for several hours on Wednesday, reportedly to curtail the popularity of pornography in China. Of course, the issue is more than simply restricting access to internet pornography. China’s move to directly restrict information is an incursion on the rights of all people to learn about the world and have educated beliefs about what they wish their society to be.

The move to briefly shut down Google was part of China’s efforts to force all websites to utilize China’s new information restricting software, called “Green Dam Youth Escort.” The Chinese government argues that the software is meant to restrict access to pornography, but the software is also able to restrict anti-government websites, or for that matter, any other information the state deems unacceptable. Firewalls already in place in China restrict access to certain information. Even searching Chinese President Hu Jintao’s name is restricted. Programmers have argued the software also creates vulnerabilities that can render Chinese citizens’ computers susceptible to hackers. This kind of restriction is an affront to freedom of speech and freedom of information — and it will harm Chinese society.

In past columns, I’ve spoken about investment into research as a way to propagate avenues of research and expand our knowledge and technology in ways we didn’t anticipate. The restriction of information in China is cutting off that propagation at the most basic level. For every fact about science, history, sociology and political science withheld from the Chinese public, entire avenues of thought are cut off at their very roots. Entire generations of Chinese citizens will be unable to reach their fullest intellectual and social potential without full access to information.

Electronics have made the transfer of information and the diffusion of ideas more rapid and convenient than any means before it. It is through such diffusion that we see many of the benefits of globalization. People with access to information from other cultures are much more able to understand other societies and beliefs. With a more cosmopolitan population, economic, cultural and intellectual exchange is much more fluid. The best ideas of every culture can spread beyond political borders to any person who can benefit from it.

The effects of such access to information in society are profound. The more information a society has access to, the more a government is culpable to its citizens. Just as we are seeing now with Iran, freedom of information gives individuals the ability to expose the good and the bad in a society or government while appealing to an audience far greater than could be reached by generations prior. A well informed populace promotes longer-term, responsible decisions like sustainable living.

Freedom of information is also paramount to a thriving education system. In this capacity, an educated populace can choose what it truly wishes society to consist of, based on both the knowledge its people have access to and the culture that these people are a part of. Both present the facts, and the legacy of a society’s history are critical to developing a stable future for a country. Authoritarian regimes that restrict information can only delay conflict, not stifle it permanently. And they do so at the cost of cultural and intellectual development.

China has long considered education a part of its cultural foundation — those who perform well academically are revered. The restriction of information, of self-knowledge, can only hamper the education of generations of Chinese citizens. Unless China opens its doors to all information, its population cannot expand its knowledge in the best possible way.

Ben Caleca can be reached at calecab@umich.edu.

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