There’s a common misconception that China does not afford its citizens the protections of free speech. Totally false! Chinese citizens can say whatever they want, they just need to find a licensed publisher or licensed Internet Content Provider (aka, a website) to distribute their words.
The Speech is Free, but it can’t be too subversive, because licensed publishers won’t print material that speaks unfavorably of the government. Hey, private companies are allowed to make their own rules. Don’t like Weibo’s content moderation policies? Go start your own social media platform!
Perhaps you’ve heard of Gab. It’s a Twitter-ish platform that was created as a free (as in speech) alternative to BigTech social media. But the site keeps getting banished by service providers — Apple, Google, Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, Paypal, Stripe, Coinbase, Square, CashApp, have all deplatformed Gab. Private companies are allowed to enforce private rules, but it’s odd how independent tech companies dutifully fall in line with the establishment.
We hear stories about Chinese dissidents who get “disappeared” and sold for parts, but those cases are not the norm. It’s far more common for the government to employ a softer form of power. These days, those who publish subversive material might be “taken in for questioning”. Maybe their family members will get “taken in for questioning” too. A long night of “questioning” is usually enough to intimidate the critics.
Here in the US, law enforcement issues a subpoena. To receive a subpoena does not indicate guilt of a crime; it’s just the government’s way of “asking questions”. The questions typically demand multiple years’ worth of written communication and metadata, in a structured format prepared for Concordance, Bates numbered, with a searchable index. Failure to comply is a criminal offense.
That compliance is burdensome and expensive is one of the best features of our legal system. For the government, that is. If the government wants to shut down a nonconformist, just mire them in legal sludge. For example, here’s multiple attorneys general demanding a decade’s worth of communications, emails, and financial statements from those who have published climate change skepticism. Here’s that time a federal grand jury issued a subpoena to Reason.com after site commenters posted offensive remarks about the judge who sentenced Ross Ulbricht. Here’s the professional shakedown racket known as SPLC gloating about “massive legal fees” Gab will incur as a result of a subpoena issued by the Pennsylvania Attorney General.
The government is basically doing what Peter Thiel did to Gawker — dragging them through litigation until they run out of money and give up. Thiel incurred significant capital expenditure to subdue his opponent, but our government can do it For Free.
On the bright side, we do have something China doesn’t have: Capitalism. Our Department of Justice doesn’t choose its investigation targets in a vacuum. It has partnerships with nonprofits like the ADL, the NAACP, the SPLC, and other advocacy groups, who help inform law enforcement decisions in a totally unbiased way. Tech companies lavish donations on these groups to keep legal attention at bay. Or they simply put these advocacy groups on payroll as Trusted Flaggers and consultants, along with a cushy salary.
Consider it a form of tithe. After all, freedom isn’t free.
Another example. Operation Chokepoint was a DoJ initiative to investigate banks who did business with firearm dealers, payday lenders, and other politically incorrect companies. As a result, many financial institutions terminated service to legitimate businesses to avoid the hassle of investigation.