So what happens now? The good news is that American technology companies can still promote Internet freedom in China. Google tried to bring information to the Chinese people; now let’s try bringing Chinese people to the information. In other words, U.S. companies can set up shop outside of China but make it as easy as possible for the Chinese to access their services. Call it Twitter diplomacy.
Twitter, though blocked by the Great Firewall, has a small but fiercely loyal following on the mainland. Chinese use it to break news, offer frank opinions, and find like-minded individuals. Artist and social activist Ai Weiwei recently referred to Twitter as “a ray of light” in “a very dark room.”
The fact that Chinese can access this service has much to do with Twitter’s design. Twitter has an open application programming interface, or API. Twitter’s API allows people to post and retrieve tweets on sites other than Twitter. “Coders in China can still find wholesale access to twitter.com blocked,” says Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “The idea is that coders elsewhere get to Twitter, and offer up feeds at their own URLs—which the government has to chase down one by one.”
The Twitter API is just one example of an innovative way a U.S. company can help Chinese netizens gain access to uncensored information. Western companies can also address the Great Firewall by developing safer and cheaper virtual private networks that allow Chinese to access the Web as if they were outside of China. What’s important is that these are fundamentally technological approaches, not overtly political ones.