The Great Firewall of China is widely known, but what does it look like, how does it operate? Policy Innovations advisor Rebecca MacKinnon gave a fascinating presentation on Freedom and Control on the Internet at the Open Society Institute in New York earlier this week, detailing some of the trends and practices in Chinese censorship.
Search engine censorship is one of the primary forms. Rebecca showed examples of the different sets of image results one gets from Google.com and from Google.cn when searching for Tiananmen massacre. Google.com, the global site, returns photos depicting violence and victims. Google.cn, the Chinese domestic version, shows nothing of the sort. Instead the results include at least one photo of the Nanjing massacre.
Rebecca also showed what happens when you try to visit banned sites or post sensitive words to a blog. Banned sites are made to look like you're experiencing a temporary technical error, and blog posts with sensitive words can elicit a pop-up that says the "community editors" will get back to you shortly, so don't repost your text. Of course, you never hear from them and your draft never gets published.
The Chinese government is also proactive about shaping opinions online, throwing their support behind organizations like anti-CNN, a website that combats "the lies and distortions of facts from the Western media." They also pay members of what has come to be known as the 50-Cent Party to post opinions favoring the government and its policies in online forums. 50 Cent refers not to the American rapper but the per-post rate these loyalists receive.
Spoof and humor seems to be the predominant form of online criticism that is somewhat tolerated. In the wake of the recent Mandarin Oriental hotel fire next to the Chinese Central TV headquarters building—which has been dubbed the "underpants" building by Beijingers due to its unique two-legged architecture—various visual puns and mashups appeared online mocking CCTV. It turns out CCTV caused the blaze with illegal fireworks while celebrating Chinese New Year. Sadly one firefighter died and several were injured in the incident, but humor nonetheless belongs in politics, as the Tina Fey phenomenon made clear during the U.S. election.
A parallel trend of resistance is what Harvard's Ethan Zuckerman describes as the cute cat theory of digital activism: where free speech, organizing, and other forms of anti-authoritarian protest piggyback on social media that are primarily intended for benign and mundane activities like sharing photos of adorable pets. Authorities can't take down the whole site to delete the protest group pages without killing the cat appreciation society pages, too.
So is the Chinese government worried about online activism and dissent moving into the streets? Very much so. This is where the rubber meets the road, said MacKinnon, although no opposition party has yet to emerge from the Internet. The true test may come later this year as economic downturn meets a slew of dramatic anniversaries: March 31, 1959, Dalai Lama flees Tibet; June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square; October 1, 1949, People's Republic of China founded.
MacKinnon emphasized that Internet norms in the West will influence what happens in China. We're at a stage where large communications companies exist in a mediating layer between people and their governments. If this layer remains opaque, then the system will tend to reinforce incumbent power, she said. To help keep things transparent, Rebecca has worked to develop the Global Network Initiative, a voluntary code of conduct for the ICT industry. Through a multi-stakeholder process, GNI has crafted a "collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector." She says we may see companies conducting "human rights feasibility assessments" in the near future.
Operating in an environment of censorship presents ICT companies with significant ethical choices. Should they fudge on their philosophy to gain early market access? Will fostering some openness be better than none at all? How sensitive should they be to the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation?
Chinese private enterprises don't have the luxury of ruminating on these matters. In fact, they are legally responsible for the content their users post, and the government can rescind their business licenses if they don't manage to keep controversial material off the web. For the individual user who wants to maintain freedom and anonymity, there are options such as the Tor project.