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Obama, In China, Promotes An Open Internet

In a townhall meeting in Shanghai, the President acknowledges the challenges posed by unrestricted Internet access, but says the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Speaking to students on his first visit to China, President Obama said today that unrestricted Internet access should be encouraged, but he stopped short of explicitly criticizing China's restrictive Internet access policies.

"I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable," Obama said. "They can begin to think for themselves. That generates new ideas. It encourages creativity."

Under a project dubbed Golden Shield, the Chinese government controls what its citizens can see online; some critics refer to the technology involved as the "great firewall of China." China widely censors content and access to Web sites, including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, as well as information on politically sensitive topics such as Tibet, Taiwan, and pro-democracy activism.

Earlier this year, Chinese officials criticized Google and Chinese search engine Baidu for "massive violations of social morality" for failing to block pornography.

Obama said that although he strongly supports non-censorship and believes it to be "a source of our strength," he recognizes "that different countries have different traditions." He also noted that an open Internet can allow extremists to organize and mobilize, but said that the good far outweighs the bad.

In a nod to the Government 2.0 trend, Obama lauded the Internet as a grassroots citizen participation platform, noting the Internet's role in his presidential campaign. The event, a town hall meeting in Shanghai, included questions submitted over the Internet.

In advance of the meeting, the U.S. Department of State reached out to Chinese bloggers and encouraged free-speech advocates to cover it. Obama's speech was not carried live by national television in China, but was on local Shanghai television and streamed online via some Chinese Web sites, according to the Associated Press.

In the United States, Obama is encouraging federal agencies to use the Web as part of his push for more open, collaborative, and transparent government. That includes the use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking Web sites, though the President revealed that he has never used Twitter personally.

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