On Chinese blogging and American free speech

Once again, I have done more effort to blog on someone else’s site than on my own. Over on I Should Be Sleeping, a discussion on Chinese Internet usage and governmental control led to the following comment to Brian. Cross-posting here, comments shut off so we can keep discussion all in one place on Brian’s site.

Comment follows:

If “Great Firewall of China” is a new term to you, I strongly recommend you waste an evening Googling articles about the Chinese Internet — the combination of the Internet, hundreds of millions of Chinese users, and an authoritarian state makes for some fascinating reading.

In brief, though, it’s definitely true that you’ll see things on the Chinese Internet that you wouldn’t expect to see. The fact is that most Westerners never see them — and that’s due to what I think is an amazing aspect of the Internet: almost all US observers assume that the English segment of the Internet is “the” Internet, and completely ignore the vast swaths of it that they can’t read. Hence, the world’s largest social networking sites, online MMORPGs, and blog forums are completely invisible. This does not occur in the opposite direction; there is a large plurality of non-native English speakers on the Internet who have some English facility. (And, of course, major English properties are frequently translated.)

A few thoughts to get you started on your reading:

1) one of the interesting aspects of China’s Internet policy is that everything gets read by the government. At first, China threw huge resources at reading everything that was posted internally — estimates of over 100,000 government viewers were made — so that no subversive thought could go unpunished. Today, the job is mostly done electronically, with things such as keyword filtering, text analysis, and cameras at public Internet cafes. China’s internal routers are designed to allow for this to occur at the IP level, so you don’t need to post in a public forum to attract governmental attention.

I strongly encourage you to read more about what has happened in China and elsewhere on this front, because it informs my opinions about the ease of creating such a totalitarian state here. To date, American advances in this regard include the ISP filters watching domestic Internet traffic, the ECHELON and other transnational systems that review all incoming and outbound phone and Internet international traffic, individuals being increasingly tracked by the government through cameras and data mining, and the moves by the TSA to put dissenters on terrorist watch lists. (Did you catch the news that, to fly without ID, you need to provide the government with details of your past addresses? I.e., what you say at the airport is checked against their pre-existing databases on you.)

We are completely in agreement that today we have much freer expression than people in other countries; my fear is that this is a temporary situation, thanks to lack of concern about how we nibble at the edges of free speech. It’s a fairly simple tautology: a) future terrorist attacks and threats will induce a greater clampdown on American freedoms; b) future terrorist attacks and threats are largely assumed to be inevitable. Ergo, it’s a question of when, not if, we will lose more of our current civil liberties.

2) in authoritarian states, there is a complicated pax de deus whereby the government signals its people what things may be discussed and what may not. Generally, this is far more subtle than having a presidential aide tell the country that they have to watch what they say. What you’re seeing on the Chinese Internet is a result of all communication which have already passed through these internal filters. I don’t think it’s particularly heartening that dissent about Chinese management is online; history proves that such dissent exists in all authoritarian states. What you see online is, by and large, only the approved dissent, which is up there with “free speech zones” in the realm of inherently contradictory concepts.

That said, what I find much more heartening is the potential of technology to provide ways to bypass government filters in repressive regimes. Encryption and proxy servers can go a long way towards giving authoritarian government headaches; authoritarian governments respond by making such technologies themselves illegal.

Hence, I would argue that the affordances of such technology are highly political: people who have access to such technologies and frequently use them are likely to enjoy greater civil liberties, and are likely to continue enjoying these liberties. Put another way, a polity that currently enjoys a high level of civil liberty is likely to stanch the authoritarian impulse in their governments by making it nontrivial for them to casually review their communications, and to make it more difficult for them to casually impose new restrictions and monitoring.

In short, once the question is asked, “What do you have to hide?”, the presumption that you have to choose what is hidden is already made for you. Likewise, if your answer is “I have nothing to hide”, then your lack of concern makes it more likely that this will cease to be a choice, but rather a regular state of existence.

Which is why I think it would be excellent if more Americans paid regular attention to what it is like to live in China. America in 2008 bears political features which we despised in the 1988 Soviet Union, and this transition has occurred organically. It seems to me that if we do not wish to live in a Chinese-style environment in 2028, we should pay attention to the current sociological demonstrations of such cultures that we have available to us.

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