School of Information Studies professor Alex Tan is an internationally renowned expert on Asian telecommunications policy.
For Zixiang "Alex" Tan, telecommunications policy in Asia is a question of balance. Asian governments, especially China's, want control over content and provision of Internet service, but don't want to stifle rapid development of their telecommunications markets.|
"The governments of the Asian Pacific are very different from that of the United States," says the School of Information Studies professor and internationally renowned expert in telecommunications and network management. "Usually these countries have strong government intervention, policies, and regulation. They are not allowing liberal diffusion, or expansion, of the Internet. They want the Internet and are aware of its economic advantages, but they are running into situations where they cannot control the information."
Tan, who came to SU two years ago from Rutgers University, has an extensive background in telecommunications. He has worked in the field for more than 15 years, taking jobs with a Chinese central government agency, Alcatel's European branch, and a research center at the University of Nebraska. He has been a consultant for such multinational corporations as AT&T, BellSouth, Space Systems/Loral, Vodafone, Telesystem, and IDC. He has also briefed U.S. officials on Chinese telecommunications policy.
With Milton Mueller, director of IST's graduate program in telecommunications and network management, Tan wrote China in the Information Age: Telecommunications and the Dilemmas of Reformin 1997. The well-received book was among the first comprehensive studies of China's economic reforms in telecommunications.
Tan's research deals with countries throughout Asia, but focuses on China, where 1.17 million people access the Internet through a limited number of service providers. He works closely with government agencies and his counterparts at Asian universities. "I'm looking at Internet diffusion and the roles governments can play in this diffusion," he says. "They're either promoting it or delaying it because of their policies regulating content and service provision."
China closely controls Internet access because of political, economic, and cultural interests, Tan says. "They're concerned about cultural invasion from the United States. That's not just true for AsiaEuropean countries are also experiencing this. The United States dominates the web. Asian countries are concerned about social values; their standards are very different. An example is the pornographic content of some sites from the United States. Most of them cannot be accepted in the Asian Pacific, even for adults."
Controlling content has proved a major challenge, however. "Previously, physical boundaries could isolate your country from others," Tan says. "Now the Internet eliminates that, so there has to be some kind of policy." China deals with the problem in various ways, ranging from forbidding users to view certain sites to requiring Internet service providers (ISPs) to keep records of sites their customers visit.
Tan also examines burgeoning foreign investment in the Asian Pacific, and his research helps U.S. companies make wise investments. With a potential subscriber base of 1.2 billion in China, for example, it's easy to see why foreign ISPs are lining up to serve the market. Few, however, will be allowed to set up shop. "Governments are concerned about whether foreigners will control their networks," Tan says. "You can sell them hardware and software, but once it comes to operating the networks, most countries are very concerned. It's kind of a balancethey want to buy something from you, but they also want to develop their own industries."
Resistance to China's especially stiff regulation of the Internet comes mostly from international groups monitoring censorship and human rights violations. Tan believes it's a domestic issue and should be treated that way. "Groups in the United States cannot use First Amendment rights to make a case," he says. "China is another country. Are we trying to export our legal system to another country?"
Domestic resistance to regulation has been mainly on economic grounds, he says. "People say if you have strict regulation, you are stifling competition; and if you are not bringing in a lot of competition, prices will be high. Service quality will be limited. To that extent, they are delaying diffusion, and that's a major concern. This is something they have to balance. You have to sacrifice to gain."