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Al Jazeera: Internet Censorship in China

January 2, 2010

Today I appeared on Al Jazeera, giving a live interview on the subject of Internet censorship in China.  You can watch the preceding report here, but unfortunately there’s no weblink for my follow-on interview — but I’ll post one if it becomes available.  In the meantime, here are some of the main points I shared with viewers:

  • There’s a big tension in China between the need to develop a modern, open, high-tech economy and the desire to suppress “disruptive” ideas that China’s leaders fear might encourage social unrest.
  • China’s government should not be viewed as a monolith in this respect.  There are some in the government, primarily responsible for internal security, who would gladly shut down the Internet tomorrow.  There are many others who recognize that such a move would be a disaster for business and the economy.
  • As a result, what we’re seeing isn’t an unrelenting, concerted effort to restrict Internet access.  Rather, there are a series of probing actions.  A ministry will announce some audacious scheme to control the Internet, and if it meets significant resistance (either from other ministries, or business, or Chinese internet users) it may back off and try another approach.
  • That’s what happened with the attempt, in mid-2009, to require manufacturers to install Green Dam Youth Escort, government-sponsored censorship software, on every PC sold in China.  The computer industry and China’s “netizens” vigorously protested and authorities quietly backed down.
  • It’s hard to imagine that recently announced plans to restrict Internet access in China to a “whitelist” of registered sites will prove any more practical or acceptable to business and consumers than the ill-fated Green Dam.  It will be interested to see just how implementation of this proposal plays out.
  • One of the main reasons China has intensified its crackdown was the elections in Iran and the protests that followed.  China’s leaders observed the role YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook played in disseminating information and helping the opposition to organize, and didn’t like what they saw.  All three sites have been blocked in China since this past summer.  (For more on this topic, see my previous post here).
  • If I had had more time, I would have noted that China has its own homegrown versions of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook that are not blocked.  It’s hard to tell whether the purpose of the ban is to give them a business advantage over their global competitors, or because the Chinese government feels it has more leverage in getting Chinese companies to “behave” (through self-censorship) — probably both.

On a separate but related note, I recently discovered that I can now access this blog in China without my VPN.  Ever since I started blogging, in mid-2009, urls containing names of the major blog hosting sites (wordpress, blogspot, etc) have all been blocked in China.  It appears, for the moment at least, that may not longer be the case. 

Which sites are blocked in China, when, and why can often seem baffling.  Wikipedia was blocked entirely for years, until just before the Olympics it suddenly became available — only specific entries  on “sensitive” subjects remain blocked.  This is one strategy — a highly effective one — employed by China’s censors:  as the firewall become more refined, more targeted, it becomes far less obtrusive.  In fact, you may not realize content is being censored at all.

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