China, Green Dam and peer pressure

Paul Raven @ 01-07-2009

Chinese soldierThe Chinese government is backpedalling with all the terse dignity it can muster; its controversial Green Dam end-user censorware has received so much political criticism (and vendor footdragging) that its launch has been delayed:

Xinhua, the state news agency, reported the change of plan four hours before the software launch was due.

“China will delay the mandatory installation of the ‘Green Dam-Youth Escort’ filtering software on new computers,” it said in a terse statement attributed to the ministry of industry and information technology.

The authorities looked likely to miss their deadline for the rollout of the software that blocks pornographic, violent and politically sensitive content.

The Guardian struggled to find a single retailer who had Green Dam either installed or bundled with computers.

Adding to the mystery, Lenovo, Sony, Dell and Hewlett Packard refused to comment on whether their PCs are now being shipped with the software, as the government ordered them to do last month.

The government says the software is necessary to clear the Chinese web of “harmful content”. But critics say it is a misguided attempt to put the internet genie back in the bottle by a Communist party that now has to answer to about 300 million web users.

The appropriately-named Isaac Mao sees this as an epochal moment for the Chinese:

I think this is the tipping point between the people rising up and those in power trying to suppress them. The great firewall is overloaded and that is why the authorities are trying to move the focus of control to the desktop. But it has annoyed a lot of people. Not just liberals who want free speech but the young who see it as an intrusion into their personal lives.”

I rather suspect that commercial resistance has had as much of a part to play as political. Whether the Communist Party has shot itself in the foot by trying to control something inherently uncontrollable remains to be seen, but this is another example of the web appearing to break down geography and erode the power of nation-states. Revolution seems to be a popular pastime at the moment – maybe we’ll see the Red Dragon try to slip its chains soon? [image by Ed-meister]

Jeff Jarvis takes the opportunity to point out that big companies like Google and Siemens who have been known to collaborate with repressive governments actually have the clout to bring them to the bargaining table… and that as such, it behooves us as their paying customers to keep the pressure on them to play nice:

Technology companies from Cisco to Nokia to Siemens that have provided technology to enable censorship and tracking, and companies from Yahoo to Google that have handed over information about users to governments that use it to oppress citizens should be ashamed. And we need to shame them. We need to give them cover by demanding behavior that is not and does not support evil.

In a digital age, censoring the internet, stopping citizens from connecting with each other, and using the internet to spy on and then oppress citizens is evil. We shame companies that helped enable fascist regimes in the ’30s and apartheid in the last century. Is it time for technology boycotts? I’m not sure. But it is time for the discussion.

I’m not sure outright boycotts would work, if only because of the size and ubiquity of many of the companies in question.  But so far it looks like vocal objection and discussion is chipping away at the walls of the more monolithic states; perhaps it’s too much to hope for, but maybe totalitarianism’s time is coming to an end? Even the arch-realist Chairman Bruce suspects we may just not have it in us any more.

Of course, the possibility of sweeping away nation-states only to replace them with equally dictatorial multinational corporations is worth bearing in mind. I think Jarvis is right: we need to keep up the pressure on big businesses so that they don’t start eyeing up empty thrones. Vote with your feet, and with your pocketbook.

Is Chinese web censorship effective?

Paul Raven @ 04-06-2009

Soldier guarding portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen SquareThe last week or so has seen a number of stories regarding today being the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, many of them focussing on the sad but unsurprising fact that the Chinese government has locked down access to a swathe of web tools (like Twitter) and news sites (like HuffPo) in anticipation of its citizens talking about a subject on which it is still hugely touchy.

The first question I asked myself was “how effective will that be, anyway?” I’m obviously not the only person to wonder the same thing – though it seemed my initial optimism was unfounded, as BoingBoing linked to a short post by Beijing-based journalist James Fallows, who reports that knowledge of the Tiananmen protests among young Chinese is virtually non-existent:

I have spent a lot of time over the past three years with Chinese university students. They know a lot about the world, and about American history, and about certain periods in their own country’s past. Virtually everyone can recite chapter and verse of the Japanese cruelties in China from the 1930s onward, or the 100 Years of Humiliation, or the long background of Chinese engagement with Tibet. Through their own family’s experiences, many have heard of the trauma of the Cultural Revolution years and the starvation and hardship of the Great Leap Forward. But you can’t assume they will ever have heard of what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago. For a minority of people in China, the upcoming date of June 4 has tremendous significance. For most young people, it’s just another day.

Similar sentiments crop up in a series of PBS interviews with journalists and experts in Chinese sociology [via MetaFilter], though there is some hope as well – here’s author and journalist Jan Wong:

I don’t know what it tells you about a country when you could have such a cataclysmic event as Tiananmen Square and then suddenly you lop off the reality for all the people coming after. … But the great thing about China is that history is valued so that it will come out one day. People will keep records, people will eventually write about this. It’s not that it’s disappeared forever. You know, in Chinese history, each dynasty has secrets that it suppresses, and then it’s up to the next dynasty to write the true history of the previous dynasty. Each dynasty writes its own propaganda, the next dynasty writes the true history, so I assume this will happen in China, too.

But how long will we have to wait for this to occur? Has the old cultural chain of the dynasties been snapped by the Communist Party’s ubiquitous censorship, or is it just another Emperor in different clothes?

Of course, one of the great claims about the internet is John Gilmore’s belief that it “treats censorship as damage and routes around it”; whether that is still the case (or if it ever was) is a subject for debate, but it’s reasonable to suggest that the internet must be a difficult beast to cage, even with the immense amount of manpower available to the Chinese government. China specialist Orville Schell suggests that China is the ultimate test of Gilmore’s aphorism:

We do have some interesting wild cards, like the Internet, and I think the Internet is fundamentally a liberalizing force. But I think China, in this regard, is the great petri dish for whether the Internet can be brought to heel, or whether it is, on the face of it, a sort of spontaneous free agent that will catalyse China into a more open direction. And I think the returns are not in yet. China needs the Internet, and it’s using it to good effect in business. And the Party is using it very effectively to help communicate with the provinces, the counties, the police units, the army. It isn’t purely an engine of dissident energy or of individualism or of democracy. We’ve seen many technologies from telegraph to radio to television that have been brought to heel quite nicely by commercial interests. So we’ll see.

Now you can’t control the Internet completely. I don’t even think that’s their aspiration in China. But their aspiration is to make it difficult enough for most people so that they’ll stay within the confines of the intranet, not the Internet. The intranet being China’s sort of hermitically sealed room, which is connected to the outside world by a very limited number of gateways. And it is through those gateways, that all the information to the outside world flows, both ways, and that’s where it can be controlled.

As with so many things, only time will tell. But I find myself wondering about the curiosity that is so much a part of being a young adult, at least here in the West – can censorship and obfuscation have really erased that completely among China’s young citizens? Would they not notice the increase in website blocking and wonder what is being hidden so carefully, like a child told to stay out of the cupboard under the stairs as Christmas approaches?

Maybe I’m more optimistic than I thought – I imagine that knowledge of the Tiananmen massacre isn’t as rare as it might appear to outside eyes, perhaps passed around in secret by good old word of mouth, quiet whispers and hand-written notes guarded closely against the surveillance of the state, a tiny precious flame shielded against the wind and rain, never shown to outsiders for fear that to do so would incur the wrath of the Party.

Or maybe I’m being naive; perhaps curiosity is easily quenched. After all, it’s not as if the ‘free’ West isn’t full of people who cultivate their own ignorance of political history, so as to avoid having to ask themselves awkward questions about the way the world works. [image by Gene Zhang]

Stuff you can’t see on Google Maps

Paul Raven @ 08-01-2009

As the title says: 51 things you can’t see on Google Maps, via Bruce Schneier. No prizes for guessing that most of them are military installations or government-sponsored institutions.

In a decade’s time, will there be more things on this list, or less? Will the list vary according to which nation-state you make your search from? Will there be a ‘black’ maps service that unfuzzes the obscured areas, if you know how to find it (and if there isn’t already)?

Pullman on the futility of censorship

Tom James @ 29-09-2008

Philip Pullman, celebrated author of His Dark Materials, talks sense on censorship:

The inevitable result of trying to ban something – book, film, play, pop song, whatever – is that far more people want to get hold of it than would ever have done if it were left alone. Why don’t the censors realise this?

Huzzah for human nature then.

He also makes some rather good comments on the nature and extent of religious authority:

Religion, uncontaminated by power, can be the source of a great deal of private solace, artistic inspiration, and moral wisdom. But when it gets its hands on the levers of political or social authority, it goes rotten very quickly indeed.

My basic objection to religion is not that it isn’t true; I like plenty of things that aren’t true. It’s that religion grants its adherents malign, intoxicating and morally corrosive sensations. Destroying intellectual freedom is always evil, but only religion makes doing evil feel quite so good.

I certainly don’t object to religious belief – but I do object to unaccountable power, which is the kind that many religious authorities possess.

[from The Guardian][image from Gullig on flickr]

Richard Morgan on the future of the internet

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2008

world-wide-web-internet Richard Morgan, author of a number of excellent cyber-noir sf thrillers (the most recent being the excellent Black Man, or Thirteen as it was titled in the US) was asked by Index On Censorship Magazine to write an essay about the future of the internet, which is now available on his website. [Image by Meyshanworld]

If you’re familiar with Morgan’s books, you’ll know not to expect rose-tinted panglossian speculation from him. I’ll freely admit that I get carried away with techno-utopian visions from time to time, and it’s good to have writers with Morgan’s incisive intelligence to bring me down to earth:

“The future of the internet, then, is not going to be too much of a shock for anyone who knows much about human nature and whose eyes are open. In fact, regardless of the technical innovations that we may or may not see in the next few decades, virtual reality looks as if it’s going to conform pretty ordinarily to the existing human tendencies we so know and love.”

Go read! [Props to Ariel for the tip.]

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