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China Censors Obama Speech

According to the BBC, Chinese censors took their little red pens to sections of President Obama’s inaugural address that mentioned defeating communism and silencing dissent. While English language versions of the speech were not filtered on the Internet, Chinese translations struck the following key passages:

“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history,” which was cut in its entirety, while the following sentence had the work communism struck, “Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.”

As we have discussed here before, China has one of the most pervasive Internet filtering regimes in the world, which, according to Rebecca MacKinnon, follows the government’s playbook for censorship of traditional media. Chinese leaders are also apprehensive about the new administration’s policy towards China, which may break with Bush’s generally friendly approach.

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China Media Expansion to Follow Al Jazeera Model

While media outlets around the world are cutting back international coverage and staff, China is actually looking to expand its global media empire. According to the New York Times, they are basing their expansion plans on the Al Jazeera model:

The country’s increasingly wealthy media giants, which operate under China’s censorship rules and according to its propaganda motives, are trying to acquire international media assets, to open more overseas news bureaus and to publish and broadcast more broadly in English and other languages. Many of them have already announced plans to hire English-speaking Chinese and foreign media specialists.

The plan, first reported Monday in The South China Morning Post, includes the creation of a 24-hour news channel modeled on Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language news network, with correspondents around the world.

The primary objectives, which are totally contradictory, are to improve China’s image overseas while at the same time creating a respected international news channel. I find it very hard to believe that a country that goes to such great lengths to filter the Web and control media outlets, will ever allow the creation of an independent news room. If the goal is image control, the future news channel will be another Alhurra fiasco, and never an Al Jazeera.

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Censorship Hurts Free Trade?

I thought this Huffington op-ed pretty uniquely turns the tables on the “evil American corporations are complying with foreign autocrats” meme. The argument is that censorship ends up being a trade barrier, by cramping IT products from functioning fully. Google in China is a tainted product. Instead of punishing U.S. companies who, for legal reasons, comply with the demands of censorship regimes, the whole issue could be recast as an unfair trade barrier, and therefore addressable by a body like the WTO.

This would effectively turn the levers of international finance against censorship, and may provide the kind of incentive needed for a county like China to consider opening up a bit. I’m not totally convinced it would work. The Chinese Communist Party seems, despite cost and bad PR , pretty hellbent on controlling information. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to hear the unusual perspective of Big Business on the question.

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Thai Website Blacklist Leaked

Wikileaks managed to find the official list of blacklisted sites from the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) in Thailand. Thailand has aggressively, if often ineffectually, attempted to control the internet, especially supposed infractions of its severe lese majeste law (see my piece earlier this year, as well as this article for more background on Thai censorship).

The list demonstrates exactly what is to be expected. Many sites were over-blocked and nixed for political reasons, even by the standards of lese majeste, itself a politically motivated statute, intended to “protect” the King. I trust Thai bureaucrats much less than Google, about whose policy of evaluating flagged YouTube clips I feel some unease. More abstractly, this story brings an Orwellian truth to light, that citizens should always distrust a government’s control over their information world.

What is fascinating to me though is how clearly the Thai government’s attempt to tame a medium as porous and expansive as the internet is failing. In the good old days, you forced the newspapers and TV stations either to license or self-censor under the threat of fines and jail. You might arrest a few prominent journalists as an example and call it a day. Although today many bloggers are being jailed (now, according to Bruce Etling here at Berkman, more frequently than traditional journalists) the mechanisms of state censorship are no longer as shrouded in mystery or difficult to assess.

The internet, by publishing leaks which none but the most underground of traditional newspapers might dare to print, naturally resists the yoke of the censorship regime. The harder a country tries to censor the internet (and China and Thailand are trying pretty hard), the more its stream of information slips like sand through their fingers.

1,203 is a paltry sum of websites, and yet probably represents a significant exertion of man hours on the part of government employees, bewildered that they must patrol a world wide series of interconnected networks, mirrors and proxy servers of free information. The censorship regime, as I see it, even the fancy Chinese firewall, is doomed to crumble under the weight of this exponentially expanding infrastructure of ideas. That includes all the taboo, dissident and revolutionary ones, too.

The Internet and Fascism

Andrew Keen has penned a provocative editorial criticizing Obama’s plans for the democratization of broadband internet access (for more on the plan itself, see my summary of Obama’s technology platform). Keen’s chief worry seems to be that universal technological empowerment, particularly of the internet, does not correlate to a more enlightened citizenry.

Even more than that, he suggests that under significant economic stress (a reality towards which, the economists murmur, we’re rapidly hurtling), the technologically literate but hopeless ranks of the unemployed could find themselves more attracted to dangerous mass movements like fascism. Social networking and mass media venues like YouTube could become the Hitler youth rallies of the past.

Superficially at least, the viral Obama/Muslim conspiracy theories may seem modest proof that free information does not a reflective citizenry make. The “Obama is a Muslim” myth was amplified with alarming speed by the conservative blogosphere and Obama’s Conservapedia page, eventually making its way into the mouth of that “He’s an Arab” women at the McCain rally. Keen is right to think that on a mass scale this could threaten representative democracy. The Framers (Hamilton comes to mind) were openly distrustful of the mob’s judgment; it was too often hasty and irrational.

On the other hand, part of the success of Obama’s PR camp was in reaching out to thinking voters with immediate corrections, frequently through information technology. The subsequent and obsessive media/internet conversation sparked by the controversy proved to be an open forum which Muslim-baiting bigots simply could not win. As far as I can tell, that is democracy in action.

(Along similar lines, James Glassman over at the State Department has suggested that engaging jihadists in online debates, instead of lecturing them from the West’s “city on the hill,” often wins public support for liberals in the Middle East by exposing Islamic fundamentalism to be precisely that.)

This doesn’t mean that the Internet is a democratic panacea. The new frontier of astro-turfing, propaganda tools and internet media censorship are troubling developments for a medium that has otherwise liberalized expression and encouraged revolutions, if not always successful ones. Robert Faris and Bruce Etling have written some great analysis for Berkman on the effects, both postive and negative, of digital networking on democracy. Read the rest of this entry »

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NYT in China Blocked and Unblocked

Last week, I posted about China  re-blocking several of the sites temporarily accessible during the Olympics. During this re-censorship spree, the New York Times website was blocked for mainland Chinese users, but only for three days. This morning it was finally free again. When pressed for comment about the ostensible arbitrariness of this action, Chinese authorities played dumb. Such highly visible waffling can only be counter-productive to the censorship regime. The average Chinese internet citizen must know what he or she is missing, had temporarily and could have again. A porous Chinese firewall (and the more users, the more porous it will become) is destined to fail.

China Re-Blocks Sites Open During Olympics

Anyone who thought the Beijing Olympics would be a catalyst for greater freedom and human rights in China should be upset (though perhaps unsurprised) to learn that many of the websites unblocked during the games have now been re-censored. The Times has the full story here.

One quote in particular, from Rebecca MacKinnon, a former Berkman Fellow and co-founder of Global Voices, helps to shade China’s particular brand of censorship in relief relative to the more mild, though to my mind still serious, censorship that many Western countries are now implementing (child pornography blocks in the US and Australia; Holocaust denial websites in Germany):

Ms. MacKinnon noted that, in contrast to other countries, the Chinese government defines crime very broadly, imposes censorship with little if any explanation and provides no process for operators of blocked Web sites to appeal censorship decisions. She added that even when entire Web sites are not blocked, the Chinese government still sometimes limits certain keyword searches.

There is something all together arbitrary about the Chinese firewall, an absurdity which will no doubt only increase as the size of the Chinese web rapidly outpaces the government’s ability to police it. There are already signs that the Great Firewall is relatively permeable when it comes to blog censorship. The renewed interest, however, in re-censoring previously open sites (in principle, like the shuffling of Beijing’s heavy industry outside the city limits during the Games) demonstrates the Chinese aren’t going to give up the battle without a fight.

Internet Weakens Democracy?

Check out this provocative and fascinating piece by Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute. The central question it raises, whether the Internet is really a force for democratic change, is as complex as it is necessary to ask. Cyber-savvy young voters (see also our coverage of “Born Digital”), kindled by Obama, may have heralded a civic reawakening for America, but as Morozov rightly points out, one should be cautious about overstating the internet’s power as a catalyst for an activist citizenry, especially in authoritarian countries. As Morozov sadly notes:

The Berlin Wall may have fallen, but the Chinese Firewall has been erected in its place.

The role of the internet in democratization is sometimes ambivalent or contradictory. The Berkman study of the Saffron Revolution in Burma turned on this question. Why was the internet, so crucial in organizing and publicizing protests, not ultimately effective in overthrowing Burma’s repressive military junta?

Morozov provocatively points to the web’s endless stream of entertainment as a possible explanation for the malaise of democratic movements. The internet is a sirensong of cheap thrills and escapism, foreign movies and sex. It is slowly transforming “digital renegades” and potential activists into “digital captives” of Hollywood distraction. As Antony Loewenstein, author of a book about blogging in repressive regimes, remarked at a recent Berkman luncheon, far more bloggers want to meet girls than agitate for reform.

Having said all that, Morozov’s conclusion — that young people in repressive regimes prefer Paris Hilton clips to freedom — strikes me as too cynical. Though no quick fix panacea, the internet has contributed to greater participation and group association. Strong correlations between increased internet capability and democratization, though not ultimately conclusive, surely reinforce this belief.

Perhaps the changes have less to do with formal democratic movements than the immense proliferation of speech on the web. This is what makes the Iranian blogosphere so vibrant, the Chinese one so resilient and the Burmese one so dedicated, despite varying levels of autocratic control. The web has broken the authoritarian choke-hold over information, even if what is flooding in from the outside is imperfect or censored. Web 2.0 technology is clearly one source of this altered dynamic; it’s easier to gag a newspaper than censor a thousand blogs.

The more impossible internet output becomes to contain, the more plausible I think it is that censorship regimes will crack, even ones as massive as the Chinese firewall. This may not be democratic activism of the most visible form, but perhaps it gives more radical democratizing movements a chance to succeed.

Chinese Bloggers Find Cracks in “Great Firewall”

Rebecca MacKinnon just posted an interesting excerpt of academic research on Chinese censorship. She focused her work on domestic blogging services in China and how politically sensitive material is censored within or without the “Great Firewall.” Since some blogging services are foreign companies operating domestically in China (MySpace, Yahoo! China), she broaches the now familiar quandary of corporate complicity in Chinese state censorship.

Google (and YouTube’s geolocational filtering) have been much discussed. Perhaps less visible was the story that came out a month ago about even Skype conversations are now being monitored (thanks to Toronto-based Citizen Lab) by an automatic filtering system hunting for keywords and targeted users. One wonders if there will ever be a moment when the sprawling expanse of internet expression will become too large and unwieldy for Chinese authorities to keep a costly censorship regime.

Unfortunately, the Chinese government has already found ways of increasing the efficiency of the operation. In addition to automatic filters and regional censors, China has practically outsourced the work to private companies by requiring licenses (and their implicit conditions) to operate.

What is interesting about MacKinnon’s work (which we earlier covered here) is how uneven and inconsistent blog censorship in China turns out to be:

All Chinese blog-hosting companies are required by government regulators to censor their users’ content in order to keep their business licenses. But as Liu [Liu Xiaoyuan, a prominent Chinese blogger] discovered, they all make different choices not only about how to implement censorship requirements, but also how to treat the users who get censored.

If you don’t get shut down on one site, you’re likely to slip through on another…

Digitial Media in Repressive Regimes: How China Filters Blogs

According to recent research by Rebecca McKinnon of Global Voices, the Chinese regime spends a ridiculous amount of time filtering and censoring the Internet–and relies on blog service providers to do a lot of the heavy lifting for them. Rebecca shared results from her research (soon to be released) on filtering in China at a conference put together by Berkman friends Caroline Nellemann and Ole Bruun of Roskilde University in Denmark, and hosted by the Danish Institute of Human Rights.

Rebecca carried out a study where she and a team created a number of blogs in Hong Kong and posted content that was likely to be blocked to see how blog service providers and the government censors reacted. In most cases blogs with sensitive topics were not put up but instead a message was received which showed that it needed to be reviewed, and a link with more explanation of why. She also conducted interviews with blog providers (Chinese and Western based) to understand how they censor or filter blogs. Their research revealed that the 15 blog service providers they tested are heavily involved in filtering of content on behalf of the government, and employ teams of humans to read and determine if flagged blog posts should be published or filtered. Somewhat humorous results were also found because of the automated filtering–including the filtering of the government’s own news agency.

Patrick Meier blogged in more detail about Rebecca’s talk. As Patrick writes, “In conclusion, the Great Chinese Firewall is only part of Chinese Internet censorship. Domestic censorship is not centralized. Domestic web censorship is outsourced by government to the private sector. Censorship is inconsistent and it is usually possible to post your content on one platform, for at least a while.”

I look forward to Rebecca’s write up of her reserach, and think that her methodology would be extremely useful to carry out in Iran and other countries where we want to better understand how filtering is taking place.